Samantha Perry

Samantha Perry

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with local numbers rising and deaths at a nursing home last week, Mercer County lost its three top health officials in a mass exit at a board meeting Friday.

Board of Health Chairman Randy Stevens resigned, as did County Health Officer Dr. Kathy Wides. Health Department Administrator Susan Kadar announced her retirement.

The actions were not that surprising to those of us who have covered this agency.

For two years the board’s operations have fluctuated between incompetence and dysfunction, with a smattering of impulsive actions based seemingly on politics and PR instead of public health.

In 2018 the board had a moment for a progressive move forward with the appointment of County Commissioner Greg Puckett to the board. Instead of welcoming a public health expert and advocate, board members instead opted to oust Greg — a move I maintain was due to in-county political bickering with a flame fanned from the issue of whether smoking should be allowed at bingo parlors.

Now, after months of sickness and death, was the political cronyism worth it?

The County Commission is the governing body who votes to appoint the five-member board of health. Puckett has only voted to appoint one of those members, Roger Topping.

The other members of the board include new Chairman Randy Maxwell, Stacie Hicks and Mike Vinciguerra.

Bluefield City Attorney Colin Cline was recommended for the board Friday. In light of all things going on, it’s likely a good thing to have a lawyer on the board.

Hicks is also on the board of Princeton Health Care Center, the nursing home where the current outbreak is occurring, and Topping is the former administrator of the nursing home. This may, or may not, be relevant. But it certainly brings up questions to those of us in the question-asking business.

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The health department came under scrutiny at the beginning of the outbreak when, in late March, a message was posted on its front door and on Facebook. The message read, in part, “Mercer Co. Health Department will be CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC starting March 25, 2020. Only essential Clinic & Public Health services will be addressed thereafter.”

The message sparked outrage, and board meetings were held to address the “misprint,” as it was called at the time.

At the newspaper, one of our biggest issues was an inability to contact health officials after 5 p.m. The board then named a public relations person, and set a policy of daily email updates. This was well and good, but then they voted that all press information would have to be pre-approved by the county attorney before release.

I wasted much breath trying to explain to various board members why this was bad policy in a time when the public wanted, and rightly demanded, accurate news quickly.

It seemed like week after week I would have to call five or six officials or board members to get an answer to a simple question such as, “Was the new case travel related or community spread?”

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This concept of shutting out the press except for approved messages has become the norm during coronavirus outbreak. In West Virginia the trend has been set by Gov. Jim Justice, who selects which journalists can ask questions during his briefings.

This is a scenario that should scare the hell out of every state resident. How can readers get the full story when journalists can’t get a question, much less a one-on-one interview?

Regrettably, this control-the-dialogue tactic is now being seen elsewhere.

When I received a valid tip last week of one or more deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak at Princeton Health Care Center, I immediately called the administrator and left a detailed message. With no response more than 15 minutes later, I called her cellphone and again left a message. Again, no response.

Ten minutes later I called then-County Health Officer Kathy Wides who immediately answered her cellphone.

My conversation with Kathy was helpful on many different levels. In addition to seeking out the answer on the nursing home deaths, Kathy also explained comorbidity, which is when a patient suffers from two chronic conditions. It was very helpful information in understanding how a COVID-19 death ruling is made.

(And this is why we prefer talking to people.)

I never received a call back from anyone at the nursing home, and was instead directed to statements on their website.

In a statement, the nursing home administrator said they learned of the deaths through the media report.

Topping echoed this sentiment at Friday’s board of health meeting, saying the Department of Health and Human Resources learned PHCC had not been contacted about the deaths and has made adjustments to fix a gap in the communications process.

I am unclear if Topping was speaking as a county Board of Health member or previous administrator of PHCC.

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Interestingly, the relationship between the newspaper and those at the health department has improved dramatically in recent months. Kathy has reached out to me on several stories, and I have met with her and others to help disseminate information they felt was important to the public.

The question now is what will happen in the future. An interim health department administrator has been named, but Kathy’s departure means there is no county health officer — and the county can not operate without that position.

One has to wonder if the current board adequately understands its role and duties. Perhaps it’s time for an investigation by the state.

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During the 2018 fiasco, then-State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp wrote a letter to the Mercer County Commission and Board of Health asking them to take caution in their actions.

She stated that their actions could “erode public trust.”

Two years and one pandemic later, her words may be ringing true.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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