Something doesn’t add up in Gov. Jim Justice’s ouster of Dr. Cathy Slemp, the commissioner and state health officer for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, and it’s not the governor’s claim that new coronavirus case numbers were inaccurately high.
Slemp “resigned” (West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch asked for and received her resignation, which is a polite way of saying Slemp was pushed out) on Wednesday. According to a statement from Justice’s office, 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 ...”
What are those recent events? The statement doesn’t say. At a coronavirus briefing earlier in the day, Justice bristled about the supposed mistake in reporting active cases, but he didn’t give much of an explanation as to how that had happened or even what the correct numbers should be. When asked who would have been responsible for such a mistake, he said he didn’t want “to throw anyone under the bus,” before vaguely pointing the finger at the Bureau for Public Health. A few hours later, the news release was issued that Slemp was gone.
It would be irresponsible to speculate on what might really be going on here, but there are a few things that can be stated as facts. Slemp has been with the Department of Health and Human Resources on and off for nearly two decades. In the interim, she ran a public health consulting firm. She’s worked for national and local organizations on public health and disaster recovery. She did her residency at Johns Hopkins University and also worked for the university, one of the most prestigious health care institutes in the country.
She’s also been a level head and a stalwart defender of best practices while West Virginians have looked for guidance during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. And Gov. Justice, who has oscillated between the rational and the nearly unhinged in his briefings, while providing precious little context for the information he presents, lost faith in her?
It’s ironic that the governor publicly demanded accountability for what appear to be clerical errors in COVID-19 case reporting, but he has publicly demanded nothing of the kind over the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety providing counterfeit respirator masks to first responders in a transaction that included someone accused of engaging in organized criminal activity.
Slemp’s resignation letter contained more than one sentence urging leaders to stick with the “science” regarding this pandemic and to be guided by that. It’s good advice. It also could be a hint toward a rift with the administration that let her go, but it’s hard to tell.
Regardless, people with Slemp’s qualifications who want to help West Virginia during a global crisis are not exactly lined up around the block to step in. Getting rid of a public health officer of that caliber in the midst of a pandemic, minus a flagrant and obvious offense, is a terrible call.
Maybe Gov. Justice and Secretary Crouch know something no one else does. For the sake of the state going forward, they’d better.