Ben Salango, the Democratic candidate for governor of West Virginia, says he believes the firing of State Health Officer Cathy Slemp is an indication that the state’s coronavirus numbers are badly off.
Aiming comments at incumbent Gov. Jim Justice today, Salango said, “They’ve been skewing the numbers and I suspect he’ll have Cathy Slemp take the fall for that.”
Slemp was pushed out by the Justice administration on Wednesday afternoon, leaving the state without a public health officer while it deals with the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice said he lost confidence in Slemp after one county-level listing of active cases was overstated.
The 5 p.m. Wednesday 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, in her resignation letter, urged state officials to “stay true to the science.”
In comments today on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” Salango made reference to a longstanding issue of state coronavirus cases not matching what is seen on the county level.
For a long time, state officials including Slemp attributed that to a lag as statistics are passed along from county health departments to the state.
But Salango contended it is intentional.
“They have been playing games with the numbers since the beginning,” Salango said. “They’ve been hoping to keep the numbers low because it’s a matter of politics for them.”
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a former governor who is supporting Salango, issued a statement today in support of Slemp, who was also the state’s public health officer from 2002 to 2011.
“I want to thank Dr. Slemp for her longtime commitment to our state,” Manchin stated. “In my work with Dr. Slemp I have always found her to be knowledgeable, helpful and professional.”
Leaders at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Slemp was a graduate, sharply criticized the decision to force her resignation.
“We are stunned and troubled,” wrote leaders at the school.
“Her steady leadership has helped protect the health and lives of people in West Virginia amid the pandemic.”
We are stunned and troubled that Dr. Cathy Slemp, the Commissioner of Health in West Virginia and a distinguished graduate of @JohnsHopkinsSPH, was asked to resign.
— Ellen MacKenzie (@EllenJMacKenzie) June 25, 2020
The effects on coronavirus in West Virginia had been among the lowest in the nation.
But on Monday, in what turned out to be her last public comments about the pandemic, Slemp issued a warning about recent trends.
At the time, Slemp said, positive cases had gone up by 28 percent over the past 14 days.
Slemp said the increase in positive cases it’s not just because the state has been conducting more tests. She said the state is seeing community outbreak of COVID-19.
“We’ve seen it in churches and family gatherings and other kinds of things. I think all of these says to us that the disease is really beginning to pick up a little bit and we want to make sure that doesn’t continue and go steeply up,” Slemp said.
The event that the governor said led to her firing, though, was a separate matter.
Justice, during a regular coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, expressed outrage over discrepancies with a sub-set of statistics.
West Virginia experienced a coronavirus outbreak at Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County a few weeks ago. As inmates and staff have recovered, an online listing for Huttonsville has been updated to show fewer “active” cases.
But the numbers for Randolph County — a separate listing — also should have shown fewer “active” cases, but there was a lag.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources released an explanation saying that happened because the data was being collected in concert with the local health department and had to be entered manually.
Justice described the statistics as an inaccuracy that could affect his credibility as he communicates with the public about the coronavirus pandemic.
“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.
There had been earlier conspicuous problems with coronavirus reporting from the state.
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.”
That was at 2 o’clock.
By 5, he had ousted Slemp.
That was not the only issue surrounding the state’s coronavirus response where Salango and Justice have expressed deep disagreement the past couple of days.
The Kanawha County Commission, where Salango serves as one of three commissioners, sent a letter to the governor asking for approval of $10 million to be granted to small businesses hurting because of the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s guidance says federal relief money may be used on “second-order effects” such as providing relief for those suffering from unemployment or business interruptions.
But Justice, when asked about the request during his briefing, took umbrage.
“I haven’t seen the letter, but I’m just wondering if it’s on Salango for Governor stationery. All it is is another political stunt,” Justice said, raising his voice.
Justice described the request as unnecessary because his administration already had plans to release a fiscal plan by the end of this week.
“All they’re trying to do is flat-out political garbage,” Justice said.
Salango, speaking today on “Talkline,” said that is not the case.
“This is not about politics; it’s about people,” Salango said. “He wants to make it about parties and Republican versus Democrat. This is right versus wrong.”