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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice forces out top health official, questions accuracy of coronavirus data amid outbreaks

The abrupt resignation of Cathy Slemp came hours after the Republican governor vented during a news conference that the state's active virus caseload may have been overstated.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice forced out the commissioner of his public health bureau on Wednesday, hours after he publicly questioned the accuracy of the state’s coronavirus data and detailed growing outbreaks in about a dozen counties.

The abrupt resignation of Cathy Slemp, who was also a state health officer, came after the Republican governor vented during a news conference that West Virginia’s active virus caseload may have been overstated.

“If we were on our game here, in DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources) and Dr. Slemp’s office, if we’re on our game and you’re listening to the governor say that there’s six active cases at Huttonsville and you’re looking at the reports that you’re putting together and sending them to me on active cases and your looking at Randolph County and they’re reporting a hundred-and-some-odd cases then you’re not doing your job,” Justice told reporters, without additional explanation.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office said Justice had expressed his “lack of confidence” in Slemp to Bill Crouch, secretary of the state health department, who then asked for Slemp’s resignation. She resigned immediately, the statement said. In a separate statement, a spokeswoman for the health department said there were discrepancies related to virus caseload data at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County.

Slemp, who was a regular feature of the governor’s daily virus news conferences, has decades of public health experience. She was previously the acting state health officer and was the founding director of the state’s public health emergency preparedness and response programs, according to a biography on the state health department website. Slemp is also on the board of scientific counselors at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Image: Dr Cathy Slemp
Dr Cathy Slemp.West Virginia Dept of Health & Human Resources

Justice, a billionaire coal businessman without previous political experience, had showered Slemp with praise as he hosted press conferences about the virus during the outbreak, often stressing that his aggressive plan to lift virus restrictions was guided by his health experts. Slemp did not appear at Wednesday’s news briefing.

Meanwhile, at least 72 cases in 11 counties have been linked to tourism travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and about 70 cases have been linked to church services in three counties, the governor said.

The spikes come as states around the country report rises in cases, and as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced they would be mandating a two-week quarantine for travelers from hotspot states.

The governor has so far declined to strengthen West Virginia’s virus restrictions in response to the increases. He has repeatedly balked on mandating face masks in public spaces, as other governments have done, saying such an order would be politically divisive.

Instead, he has stressed that people should follow existing safety rules, encouraging people to get tested for the virus and to wear face masks. Justice has also asked that people avoid traveling to Myrtle Beach, which has seen cases rise in recent weeks, rather than ordering quarantines as people return from the popular resort city.

“I strongly, strongly would tell you that if you’re thinking of going to Myrtle Beach, rethink what you’re doing,” he said, adding that he hopes he doesn’t need to instate restrictions on hotspot travel.

At least 92 people in West Virginia have died and around 2,600 have tested positive, according to state health data.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.