Justice pushes out W.Va. health officer after complaining about accuracy of coronavirus figures

State Health Officer Cathy Slemp resigned today after Gov. Jim Justice publicly complained about the accuracy of coronavirus figures during a regular news conference about how West Virginia is dealing with the pandemic.

Gov. Jim Justice

Justice had said he was not “trying to throw anyone under the bus,” but also mentioned Slemp by name during repeated complaints that some of West Virginia’s active coronavirus cases were overstated.

The news conference ended about 2 p.m., and the Governor’s Office announced Slemp’s resignation a little before 5 p.m.

The announcement stated, “After the Governor expressed to Secretary Crouch his lack of confidence in Dr. Slemp’s leadership of the Bureau for Public Health due to a series of recent events involving issues under her direct control, Secretary Crouch then asked for Dr. Slemp’s resignation, which she offered immediately.”

Slemp has been the state health director since late 2018 with particularly high visibility while dealing with the coronavirus in West Virginia over the past few months.

Prior to that she was in private practice for several years, but from 2002 to 2011 she was also the state health officer and director of the Center for Threat Preparedness.

During today’s briefing, Justice several times described frustration over a discrepancy with West Virginia’s coronavirus reporting numbers, but it wasn’t immediately clear what happened or why.

“We had overstated the amount of active cases we have. If you’re going to get something wrong we’d all be happier if it’s wrong to the good side. And it is,” Justice said.

He added, “But that’s not good enough for me.”

Justice described the reporting problem and his frustration over it near the beginning of today’s regular briefing about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I depend on people, and I really depend on their accuracy,” the governor said. “Because I’m really hung up on the right numbers. If I tell you it’s a 7 today, I want you to be able to come back and come back day after tomorrow and come back in three weeks and it be a seven.

He went on to say, “We have every reason to believe that numbers I have been reporting to you the last few days are maybe inaccurate. Now they’re inaccurate to the good side for us, but that doesn’t matter to me.”

That means, he said, that state government has been reporting more active cases than the state really has.

Illustrating the point, he described testing at Huttonsville Correctional Center that reflected six active coronavirus cases. That was correct, he said.

But a listing of total active cases in the state, Justice said, did not reflect the decline in active cases at the prison.

He specifically mentioned the Department of Health and Human Resources and Slemp, who did not appear at the Wednesday briefing.

“If we were on our game here in DHHR, in Dr. Slemp’s office, if we’re on our game and you’re listening to the governor say there’s six active cases at Huttonsville and you’re looking at the reports and you’re sending them to me on active cases — and you’re looking at Randolph County and they’re reporting a hundred and some odd cases then you’re not doing your job,” Justice said.

MetroNews asked for an explanation from DHHR — prior to the announcement that Slemp had resigned.

The agency responded that numbers reflecting an outbreak at Huttonsville had to be entered manually, with participation by the county health department:

“In the last several days, DHHR’s Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services and the West Virginia National Guard have worked closely with the Randolph County Health Department to close out 103 cases associated with the outbreak at Huttonsville Correctional Center.  This was a unique situation specific to the outbreak investigation of Huttonsville Correctional Center in that it required manual data entry.

“On the COVID-19 Dashboard, Randolph County is still showing 56 open cases. The Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services will be working with the Randolph County Health Department to learn if there are additional case reports to be closed out associated with that outbreak.”

DHHR’s coronavirus dashboard today reflected 698 active cases in West Virginia.

The dashboard shows 688 active cases from Tuesday.

And it shows 755 active cases from Monday and 778 from Sunday.

Asked later in the briefing to provide more explanation about what went wrong, Justice said officials are still trying to determine that.

“We’re digging deep into the numbers right now,” he said. “If anything, we have overstated the bad, meaning we don’t have as much bad as what we thought we had. But that doesn’t matter to me. I want the numbers to be right. But just give me a little bit of time,” he said.

“I have demanded full-fledged transparency, and I also have demanded accuracy.”

This isn’t the first time Justice has been upset about state reporting on coronavirus figures.

In March, the governor said he was “flat mad” about two reports of deaths that turned out to not be true.

At the time, state officials said Information about local cases flows first from local health departments and then to the state, which tries to verify the reports.

So a mistake at the local level could wind up being amplified by the state.

State officials instituted safeguards to remedy that situation, including a double verification standard.

Justice made reference to those mistakes during this afternoon’s briefing.

“It’s hard for me to get by the fact that we’ve been at this for months,” Justice said, “and we’re supposed to be doing a knock-down, drag-out job every day.”

He said, “To be good at any job, you’ve got to have passion for doing the job and doing the job right. Or you’re just dead-level asleep at the swtich. I can’t be any more blunt. I am not going to tolerate this. As soon as we find out the absolute answers, we’ll act. And it won’t be long.”

But Justice said, “I’m first and foremost not trying to throw people under the bus. I’m not going to do that right off the get-go until I know a little bit more.”

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