Slemp: It ‘felt like it would be a good time’ to be back at DHHR

February 18, 2019

When Dr. Cathy Slemp returned to the state Department of Health and Human Resources late last year, she thought her role as interim health officer in for the vacancy created when Dr. Rahul Gupta left, would be only for a few months.

Slemp, 56, previously spent 17 years working for the department beginning as director of what is now the Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in 1994 and culminating with her role as state health officer from 2002 to 2011.

But after she returnedin November, Slemp said her plans changed as she met DHHR staff and began making plans with the department. DHHR announced earlier this month that Slemp would stay on as health officer in a permanent role.

“I began to see what’s happening and the strength of things happening now and the areas that we need to grow and build,” Slemp said. “I found that my excitement and interest in staying long time grew. I recognize the important work that all we’re doing and felt like it would be a good time to be a part of that.”

Slemp said as acting health officer previously, her primary role was that of preparedness director. At the time, the state Bureau for Public Health had a separate commissioner. Now the roles are combined.

“My real passion around emergency preparedness arena was [that] it’s a chance to develop partnerships that we can be using everyday,” Slemp said. “People often come together around emergencies and really pull together in new and different ways because you have to. And I felt it’s an opportunity to meet each other and learn from each other.”

In the time since Slemp was away from the DHHR, she worked as a public health consultant for a variety of organizations at the local and national level, she said. In that same time, the state’s substance abuse disorder epidemic has “exploded,” she said.

“It’s exciting to see the variety of different things that are happening in that arena and to begin to think about how to strengthen that even further,” she said.

Slemp said the state’s response should evolve as the epidemic does. At first the focus was on opioids but that should change with the rise in use of methamphetamines and stimulants, she said.

“We really need to make sure we’re thinking about how do we get further back in the prevention arena,” she said. “Otherwise we’ll keep changing what the [drug] preference is when the real question is how do we get upstream and being about to kind of change some of those factors that lead people into being addicted to substances overall.”

She said another focus

should be developing supportive, recovery-friendly communities for those with substance use addictions.

Slemp has testified in legislative committees recently in support of anti-tobacco bills. Slemp said with three bills in particular, the state Legislature has the opportunity to reduce the negative economic and health impacts that smoking has in West Virginia.

Smoking-related illnesses kill an estimated 4,300 people a year in West Virginia and cost the state a $1 billion in health care costs and more than $1 billion in lost productivity, she said.

Senate bill 348 would raise the tobacco-use age from 18 to 21, Senate bill 81 would make it against the law to smoke in a car with a child present, and House Bill 2525 would allow people to get access to tobacco session therapy under a standing prescription order.

“I think the Legislature has a historic opportunity right now with those three,” she said. “With those three as a package, it could have significant impact and really could reduce those 4,300 deaths and that billions of dollars of costs a year.”

Another bill introduced this year would ease requirements for exemptions to vaccine requirements in school and the workplace.

Slemp said vaccinations are one of the most cost effective interventions we have and have saved millions of lives.

“We all value and appreciate individual rights and as a parent especially thinking about our children,” she said. “We have to also think about the choices we make around vaccinations not only affect our child they affect others around them. We have plenty of folks in communities that are not able to be vaccinated because they may have a medical complication to it or they’re undergoing cancer treatments and their immune systems may not respond to the vaccine.”

The state’s strong immunization laws have prevented outbreaks like the measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest and chicken pox in North Carolina, she said.

“These are occurring again and again we want to prevent that from happening here,” she said.

Slemp said some of her goals for the Bureau for Public Health are about workforce development and ensuring that there are future public health leaders in the pipeline. Health issues like substance abuse and tobacco will continue to be priorities.

Slemp said she’d also like to focus on healthy aging, including developing dementia-friendly communities and supports for caregivers. West Virginia has an aging population and a lot of things come with that, she said.

“The longer we can keep people in their own homes in their own environment safely and supportively... the better for those individuals and their families and all of us in our communities,” she said.