Back in 2017, the Gazette-Mail hired a new Statehouse reporter who barely had any experience in newspapers and put him on the job smack in the middle of the legislative session.
I remember the first story the guy filed. I had to walk over to him and say, “Um, OK, so they’re called ‘delegates’ here, not ‘representatives,’” in a way that was hopefully helpful and not condescending.
The reporter, who had just moved here from another state, was probably wondering what he had gotten himself into. But he eventually found his footing and went on to do a spectacular job while here.
It had to feel similar for Dr. Ayne Amjad, only with much higher stakes, when she was brought on as West Virginia’s public health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, in the midst of a global pandemic.
Amjad had the unenviable role of replacing Dr. Cathy Slemp, who, if anything, might have been overqualified for the task. No doubt, Amjad had to feel overwhelmed as she tried to get up to speed with the Department of Health and Human Resources, one of the state’s largest and most unwieldy bureaucracies, while everyone was wrangling with a problem they’d never conceived of facing.
I don’t know Dr. Amjad. I don’t know DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch. I’ve never spoken to either personally. I think they’ve done an admirable job in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, despite some inconsistent leadership from Gov. Jim Justice. Amjad, by all appearances, has gotten her bearings. She’s been more confident and better able to address media questions during news briefings on the virus. She is developing the presence of someone people can trust, which is almost as important as all of the medical knowledge in the world when trying to keep an entire state focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 and getting tested.
Still, public trust remains damaged from the reworking of variables on how risk is measured. And that fragile trust was dealt a crushing blow on Monday, when Gov. Justice revealed that there were at least 27 deaths that, somehow, went unaccounted for, eventually spotted by the DHHR and released publicly en masse during the governor’s briefing.
The problem was chalked up to miscommunication somewhere along the line between health care providers and public health authorities. I can’t help but wonder if there are more of these deaths out there that we don’t know about.
The issue also prompted Amjad to explain, for what I believe was actually the first time, the process for how these deaths are reported and recorded — something I know Gazette-Mail reporters have been trying to get on the record and out to the public for months.
I don’t throw any of the blame for this at any one government or elected official. I can’t possibly imagine what they’re being asked to do under terrible circumstances. At the same time, it’s inexcusable. We’re constantly reminded that these are people, not numbers. West Virginia cannot just lose track of nearly 30 people who have died from the virus.
While hopes are high for a vaccine that will get to the general public by sometime early next year, the pandemic is not getting any better in West Virginia. The DHHR reported a whopping 885 new cases — by far, the highest for a single day — Wednesday morning. Active cases, once hovering between 4,000 and 5,000 — which was high at the time — have skyrocketed to nearly 8,000. And the state broke the 30,000 ceiling for total cases, while recording more than 550 deaths. People are suffering and dying at a rate once unimaginable in this state.
The public needs to be able to look to its leaders with trust. West Virginians need to be assured that their governor and top health officials know how many people have contracted or died from COVID-19, where the outbreaks are coming from at any time and how to address it. There’s no room for slip-ups of this magnitude.