West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) ousted the state’s Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Cathy Slemp on Wednesday, hours after he publicly casted doubt on the accuracy of the state’s coronavirus data and outlined fresh outbreaks in about a dozen counties.
The sudden resignation of Slemp, first reported by AP, came after the governor argued during a news conference that West Virginia’s count for active cases of the virus may have been overstated.
The governor’s office said in a statement obtained by AP on Wednesday, that Justice had expressed a “lack of confidence” in Slemp to Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bill Crouch, who then asked Slemp to resign,.
A spokeswoman for the health department said in another statement obtained by AP, that there were discrepancies in the data related to case counts at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County.
Slemp, who has decades of experience in public health made regular appearances on the governor’s daily virus news conferences up until her forced resignation. She previously served as acting state health officer and was the founding director of West Virginia’s public health emergency preparedness and response programs, according to the state health department’s website. Slemp is also on the board of scientific counselors at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Justice, a coal-mining billionaire who switched to the Republican Party while in office, had often applauded Slemp in earlier briefings about the virus, often claiming that his plans to reopen the state swiftly was based on the guidance of health expert on his team.
Justice has held firm on reopening plans in spite of recent increases in positive tests for the virus. He is one of several Republican governors who have refused to mandate face coverings in public, in spite of scientific data which shows that when worn correctly, face coverings can help slow the spread of the virus.
The governor has made recommendations about wearing face masks without enforcing the practice. He also has suggested that West Virginia residents limit travel to tourist destinations like Myrtle Beach instead of issuing mandatory quarantine upon return from the beach which attracts visitors from all over and could be a hotspot for new cases to crop up.
State health data shows at least 92 COVID-19 deaths in West Virginia, in addition to just over 2,600 positive tests.