Governor: ‘No point’ to debate axing of top health official

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is done talking about why he pushed out a top health official during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor deflected multiple questions Monday about the forced resignation of former public health commissioner Cathy Slemp as he continued to doubt the accuracy of the state’s virus caseload numbers.

Justice has said he thinks the state’s active caseload may have been overstated, floating the idea that the tally could be exaggerated by around 300 cases, while providing little detail. He has blamed Slemp, who has worked for decades in public health, and suggested she was responsible for the discrepancy before having her removed from her post last week.

“There’s no point in continuing to debate my decision or my lack of confidence in Dr. Slemp,” he told reporters Monday, adding that a “culmination of a lot of different things” prompted his decision. He did not elaborate.

Hours after Justice’s news conference, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said caseload discrepancies emerged because local health departments didn’t clear active cases from the state’s electronic reporting system, and that the DHHR didn’t follow up to verify the data.

Slemp’s resignation has drawn a sharp rebuke from high-ranking officials at the respected Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who said they were “stunned and troubled” by her removal.

“We need more than ever the work of dedicated public health officials speaking honestly about what is happening — and what all of us can do together to save lives,” they wrote in a statement.

Slemp, in a resignation letter provided by the state health department, urged officials to listen to science.

“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,” she wrote.

The governor has said the health department is trying to fill Slemp’s former position as soon as possible.

West Virginia’s virus cases have been ticking upward as the state grapples with outbreaks linked to travel, specifically vacation travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as well as spikes linked to church services. Justice on Monday said an 82-year-old man connected with a flareup at a Greenbrier County church has died from the virus.

At least 93 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 3,000 have tested positive since the outbreak began, according to state health data.

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