Imagine you are the governor of a small but proud state. COVID-19 has hit, but not as hard as it has many other states, including all your neighbors. Your state is blessed with unbridled ingenuity, seemingly unlimited skilled workers and incredibly flexible manufacturers that make the products keeping your people safe.
But most importantly, you have a team of experts advising you on how all these vital resources can be brought into action because they have the knowledge and expertise to monitor the spread of this deadly virus. One of most important of these experts is the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health.
I am, of course, speaking about Dr. Cathy Slemp, who was asked for and provided her letter of resignation on June 24.
We have come to recognize that, to succeed as a state, we need to take advantage of all resources at hand. How, then, can we afford to cast aside Dr. Slemp, one of the most experienced professionals in public health in the United States? Her medical education is among the best: Princeton University; Duke University School of Medicine; Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health; Southeast Public Health Leadership Institute; and National Public Health Leadership Institute Scholar. She is board certified in public health and preventive medicine, and in family practice.
Dr. Slemp had been recognized in her field in this state and the nation, receiving numerous awards during her prestigious career. Among these are: acceptance to the Hall of Fame Award from the West Virginia Public Health Association; the Lyman-Stebbins MPH Award; the Outstanding Public Health Service Award; and the American Medical Women’s Association Award, to name only a few.
She has been called on to serve, advise and hold leadership positions on more than 20 national- and state-level professional organizations during her career.
This public health professional has publications in the West Virginia State Medical Journal; Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness; the Journal of Emergency Management; Biosecurity and Bioterrorism; Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science; Clinical Infectious Diseases; MMWR and others.
Since 1994, this professional has served the state of West Virginia in numerous positions — as director of the Center for Threat Preparedness; Communicable Disease Transitions coordinator; epidemiologist clinical and program director; and as the state health officer.
Just two months ago, states — including West Virginia — were making moves to reopen their economies; unshuttering workplaces and allowing people to gather at outdoor restaurants and engage in recreational activities.
West Virginia was looking incredibly good at that point. Despite having one of the most susceptible communities already dealing with some of the most dangerous chronic diseases, our morbidity rate was low, our infection rate was the “envy of our neighbors,” and West Virginia had followed the Gov. Jim Justice’s lead — with the excellent guidance of his medical team, including Dr. Slemp.
Now, six weeks later, the nation as a whole is looking as if it opened too soon; 26 states were showing steady increases, and West Virginia was battling hotspots from everything from faith communities to groups of teenagers returning from out-of-state beaches. Things feel again as if we are on the precipice of falling off the safety wagon and launching to new, even higher peaks.
Is there any more-qualified person to lead the state during this time of COVID-19 than Slemp? Is there another time that she has been more desperately needed?
Dr. Slemp is widely known as a compassionate, friendly, knowledgeable team player. She is resilient in times of stress and a leader at all times. She is the right person to be leading our small but proud state and its dedicated health care workers through this COVID-19 crisis.
And then, Gov. Justice fired her.
The only reason I can fathom is that the governor was unable to understand the public health consequences of his actions and was threatened by her expertise and knowledge. What a terrible shame for West Virginia. As he once recently said, “It takes a big man to get up and say he’s made a mistake.”
Governor, it feels as if it’s time to get up and be that big man.