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Dr. Slemp ousted as state health officer following Justice rant

Dr. Cathy Slemp, the commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health and state health officer who helped guide West Virginia through its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resigned from her post Wednesday after Gov. Jim Justice publicly criticized reporting errors at her office during his daily press briefing hours earlier.

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch asked for and received Slemp’s resignation after Justice “expressed to [Crouch] his lack of confidence in [Slemp’s] leadership ... due to a series of recent events involving issues under her direct control,” according to a news release from the Governor’s Office announcing the move.

In her resignation letter, a copy of which was provided to the Gazette-Mail by the DHHR, Slemp urged Crouch and others to “stay true to the science.”

“COVID-19 is a crisis unlike any most of us have ever seen. I encourage all to stay true to the science, to further work to engage and empower communities to address such an unprecedented situation collectively, to meet people where they are and to move forward together,” Slemp wrote.

“It is with mutual respect, support, a willingness to look at and understand both the science and the factors that drive them, and a dedication to moving forward together that will get the state through this together.”

During Wednesday’s news briefing, Justice said there is “every reason to believe” the number of active COVID-19 cases in the state are less than what was previously reported due to recovered cases not being removed from the active case count.

Justice cited numbers out of the Huttonsville Correctional Center, in Randolph County, though he did not offer details as to what caused the alleged discrepancy in reporting at the facility or how long the numbers may have been inaccurate.

While saying he did not want to “throw anyone under the bus,” and briefly acknowledging the error could have been “a breakdown at the local level,” Justice specifically named “Slemp’s office” as responsible for putting together case reports.

“If we’re on our game and you’re listening to the governor say there are six active cases in Huttonsville, and you’re putting [reports] together and you’re sending them to me on active cases, and you’re looking at Randolph County and they’re reporting an active 100 and odd cases, then you’re not doing your job,” Justice 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 switch.”

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Randolph County was reporting 51 active cases of COVID-19 and 103 recovered cases, according to DHHR. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Huttonsville reported three active and 123 recovered cases.

Statewide numbers, updated daily on the DHHR coronavirus website, were corrected Wednesday, dropping from a high of 778 active cases on Sunday, to 688 Wednesday.

Slemp spent 17 years at DHHR, beginning as director of what is now the Division of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology in 1994, and serving as the state health officer from 2002 to 2011.

She returned to DHHR in 2018 as interim health officer when Dr. Rahul Gupta left the agency. In February 2019, she was named as the permanent health officer.

In her years away from DHHR, Slemp worked as a public health consultant for various organizations at both the local and national levels. She also spent several years in private practice.

Eve Young steps gingerly through her flower garden in front of her home on Staunton Avenue, in Kanawha City, Wednesday as she prunes her many plants.

Keeping Trim in K.C.

WV colleges to offer ACT for students seeking Promise Scholarship

Students who still have not qualified for the $4,750-per-year Promise Scholarship for the upcoming academic year will be able to take the ACT at many West Virginia colleges through the end of September.

The state Higher Education Policy Commission, which oversees the scholarship for both four- and two-year in-state colleges, announced the move Wednesday. Spokesperson Jessica Tice said the College Board didn’t offer a similar option for its college-entrance exam, the SAT.

This new chance to qualify for the Promise for the upcoming academic year is available only to those who applied before March 1.

Despite the pandemic ending in-person high school classes during seniors’ final semester and forcing the cancellation of some ACT and SAT testing dates, the Higher Education Policy Commission has kept the college entrance exam score requirement for the scholarship.

Tice said removing the requirement would cost $38 million more over the next four years because more students would qualify.

The newly allowed ACT testing at specific colleges means students can apply for and begin attending in-state colleges, some of which have already announced they are restarting classes in August. Students who qualify for the Promise would be able to use the scholarship to pay for college expenses for the following up to four years.

As previously announced, the Commission will also accept scores from regular SAT and ACT test dates through Oct. 31 to qualify for Promise in the upcoming academic year. That’s a month after it stops accepting scores from these special ACT tests being offered at colleges.

Normally, students are not eligible to earn the Promise after they begin attending college.

If students missed the March 1 deadline to apply for the scholarship, they can still qualify by putting off college and applying later. Students must apply for the scholarship within two years of graduating high school.

Information regarding registration, testing dates and possible fees is available by contacting the specific college offering the test. The contact information is available at wvhepc.edu/coronavirus.

The participating colleges are: Alderson Broaddus University, Appalachian Bible College, Bluefield State College, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, Concord University, Fairmont State University, Glenville State College, Marshall University, Pierpont Community and Technical College, Shepherd University, University of Charleston, West Liberty University, West Virginia University, West Virginia Wesleyan College, West Virginia Northern Community College and West Virginia State University.

Students should take the test at the college they plan to attend, according to the release. Colleges may also accept the score earned there to meet qualifications for things specific to that school, such as acceptance into the college and scholarships.

The next regular SAT test dates students can register for are in August, September and October. The next regular ACT test dates are in September and October.

On the regular tests, enter the code 4539 when taking the ACT and 3456 on the SAT to ensure the Promise program gets your scores most quickly.

In order to qualify for the Promise Scholarship, students must score at least an 1100 on the SAT, with at least 520 in math and 530 in the evidence-based reading and writing section, or they need a 22 composite ACT score, with at least a 20 in the subjects of English, reading, math and science.

Limited Video Lottery setting revenue records after reopening, lottery director says

Pent-up demand for video slots play after a 10½-week shutdown has revenue from Limited Video Lottery at bars and clubs running at record levels, state Lottery Director John Myers told the Lottery Commission on Wednesday.

In fact, when limited video restarted May 30, having been shut down since March 18, the day’s revenue was the highest ever for a Saturday, going back to when the Lottery started tracking the daily take in 2008.

For the two days that show up in the May revenue report, May 30 and May 31, gross limited video revenue was $3.3 million. Myers said revenue since has been averaging about $1.5 million a day.

That would put June limited video revenue collections on pace to reach $45 million, about 50% higher than monthly averages.

Myers said revenue from casinos that reopened June 5 also has been “above average,” although he said gross revenue has dropped off in the past three to four days.

“Some of them have dropped off more sharply than others,” he said.

Myers did not elaborate, but players could be reacting to reports of surges of COVID-19 infections in 29 states, including West Virginia, with 12 states setting all-time high daily numbers for new cases.

Myers said there have been no reports of coronavirus infections linked to visits to the state’s five casinos.

Limited video’s reopening came too late in the month to salvage May revenue numbers for the Lottery.

Gross revenue totaled $28.5 million, mainly from sales of traditional scratch-off and online ticket sales. That was down more than 71% from May 2019 collections of $99.9 million.

For the budget year to date, Lottery gross revenue of $851.99 was down $198 million from the same point in 2019.

With one month left in the budget year, it also virtually assures the Lottery will fail to break the $1 billion mark in annual gross revenue for the first time since 2002.

The state’s share of Lottery profits for May, $7.96 million, is 83% below May 2019 profits of $47.49 million

Year-to-date state profits of $376.14 million are down $106 million from the same point in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Also during the Lottery Commission meeting Wednesday:

  • Commissioners approved combining rules and internal controls for iGaming with existing rules and controls for mobile sports betting apps, clearing the way for the launch of online gaming as early as next month.

“We may see iGaming by the end of July, based on the progress these folks are making,” Myers said.

Online gaming, or iGaming, will allow players to wager on virtual casino and video slots games on their mobile devices. It was legalized by the Legislature in 2019.

  • Commissioners voted to re-license the casino at The Greenbrier resort, owned by Gov. Jim Justice’s family.

Although the casino has lost money each of the past five years, a financial review showed the losses have dropped below $1 million a year in the past three years.

The casino’s parent company, the Justice Family Group, also had operating losses through 2017, the year Justice became governor, but the operation turned a profit of $4.8 million in 2018 and $20.9 million in 2019, according to the Lottery analysis.

  • Commissioners signed off on plans by Delaware North, a global food service and hospitality company that operates 11 casinos in five states, to borrow up to $325 million to offset operating losses from COVID-19 shutdowns.

In West Virginia, Delaware North owns the Mardi Gras casino in Nitro and Wheeling Island casino.

  • Myers said a Hinton couple have claimed a $136 million Powerball jackpot, but did so anonymously under a 2016 law giving Lottery jackpot winners the option of keeping their identities secret.

He said the couple took the one-time cash payout option, totaling about $108 million.

  • Commissioners tentatively scheduled their next meeting for July 22 at Lottery Headquarters in Charleston, following four months of telephonic meetings.

Myers said seating in the 10th floor conference room will be changed to permit social distancing and facemasks will be required.

Senate Democrats block GOP policing bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a Republican-drafted bill aimed at overhauling the nation’s policing practices amid a national outcry for a systematic transformation of law enforcement — spelling a potential death knell to efforts at revisions at the federal level in an election year.

In a 55-to-45 vote, the legislation written primarily by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., failed to advance in the Senate, where it needed 60 votes to proceed. Most Democratic senators said the bill fell far short of what was needed to meaningfully change policing tactics and was beyond the point of salvageable.

“The Republican majority proposed the legislative equivalent of a fig leaf — something that provides a little cover but no real change,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Wednesday morning. “The harsh fact of the matter is, the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform.”

Democrats are pushing a more expansive policing bill that the Democratic-led House will vote on Thursday, a measure that would mandate several changes, including a federal ban on chokeholds, prohibitions on no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and establishment of a national database to track police misconduct.

Its prospects are dim as Republicans say it has no chance in the Senate and the Trump administration issued a formal veto threat on Wednesday.

“The Senate Republicans want very much to pass a bill on police reform .. we have total cooperation with many different communities, including the police community. They want it very much to happen,” President Donald Trump said at a news conference later Wednesday at the White House. “The Democrats don’t want to do it because they want to weaken our police, they want to take away immunity, they want to do other things.”

The failed Senate vote came after an impassioned speech by Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, who said his bill was an opportunity to say, “Not only do we hear you, not only do we see you, we are responding to your pain.”

The gridlock on Capitol Hill stands in contrast with the growing public support for police reform measures in the four weeks since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed in police custody, galvanized the nation and prompted demands for racial justice. A national Associated Press-NORC survey conducted this month found a sweeping desire nationwide for police reform, with clear majorities across racial and party lines supporting changes such as requiring officers to wear body cameras and prosecuting those who use excessive force.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, one of three members of the Democratic caucus to join Republicans in voting to advance the bill, bemoaned the outcome.

“My concern was that voting against it will end the discussion of this subject in the Senate for the foreseeable future, and leave us with nothing to show for all the energy and passion that has brought this issue to the forefront of public consciousness,” King said in a statement.

Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Doug Jones, D-Ala., who is up for reelection in a strongly Republican state, also voted with the GOP to consider the bill.

Democrats argued that had Republicans wanted to produce a substantive, bipartisan police proposal, they would have started with a template that included more input from them before letting the bill advance on the floor. In private, Democrats also spoke of their deep distrust of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and questioned whether he wanted a bipartisan bill to pass the Senate.

Republicans repeatedly noted that Democrats could try to amend the bill on the Senate floor, and GOP senators privately offered amendment votes meant to address several criticisms of the bill that Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., laid out in a letter to McConnell on Tuesday. The Democrats turned down that offer, according to two GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss procedural deliberations, and also rejected a subsequent offer of more amendment votes.

Scott privately told Democrats that if they did not get votes on amendments they sought, that he, too, would help them filibuster his own bill before it proceeded to a final vote, according to one of the officials. One Senate Democratic aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the moves from Republicans, saying no serious offer nor efforts at bipartisan talks had been made by GOP senators.

“We’re literally arguing about whether to stop arguing about whether to start arguing about something else,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “Nobody thought the first offer from the Republican side was going to be the final product that traveled out of the Senate.”

The Senate GOP plan incorporates a number of Democratic proposals, such as legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and a national policing commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the U.S. criminal justice system.

It also withholds federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies that do not proactively bar the practice of chokeholds. It also calls on states and localities to report to the Justice Department when “no-knock warrants” are used, and it would punish those that do not do so, by withholding federal funding.

On one major point of dissension between the parties, the Republican bill leaves intact the “qualified immunity” standard that Democrats want to erode, making it easier for law enforcement officials to be sued for misconduct.

In its veto threat, the Trump administration called the Democratic legislation an “overbroad bill” that “would deter good people from pursuing careers in law enforcement, weaken the ability of law enforcement agencies to reduce crime and keep our communities safe, and fail to bring law enforcement and the communities they serve closer together.”

Despite the vote, McConnell left open the possibility of taking procedural steps to tee it up again in the future. Republicans later noted that Democrats can exert significant influence on the progress of the bill, because it would require 60 votes not just to start work on the legislation but also, separately, to move it to a final passage vote.