Adjustments made following health board resignations

NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — The Hancock County Board of Health will decide on an interim public health officer on Friday following the abrupt resignation of its health officer earlier this week.

The move was expected Wednesday, however contractual commitments have prevented the doctor from accepting the post on an interim basis.

During an emergency meeting Wednesday, the board approved the selections of board member John Plesa to serve as the board’s new chairman on a permanent basis, while also selecting Plesa and Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher to serve as signatories. They will be responsible for signing and negotiating checks on the board’s behalf.

The motion passed 2-0 with Plesa abstaining.

The move comes following the fallout from Tuesday’s meeting, in which public health officer Dr. Anna Suray, M.D., and board member Phil Rujak both unexpectedly resigned their positions – this shortly after the board approved, 3-0, to amend its smoking ban and allow smoking at Mountaineer Casino and video lottery cafes throughout the county.

The smoking ban, which was instituted in 2014, prohibits smoking in all public places. The partial overturn of the ban on Tuesday does not include restaurants and other public places, to which the ban remains in effect.

According to reports, the decision for the partial overturn Tuesday was to boost the tax base in order to handle other health initiatives, a move that both Suray and Rujak were strongly against and was also met with resistance from one member of the public in attendance and a health department employee.

Both Suray and Rujak had served as signatories for the board. Due to their resignations, this left no one in authority to sign checks for the board.

The board called the meeting Wednesday with plans to select Dr. John Capito, M.D. to take over for Suray on an interim basis until a permanent public health officer could be found. According to a report from Steubenville-based television station WTOV-9, two board employees stated that clinics and services had been lined up and they were unsure if the services could be administered.

Addressing the media report, the board stated in a release prior to Wednesday’s meeting, “It is necessary and important that any health services for county citizens continue uninterrupted.”

However, Plesa said Capito – who in the release was reported to be willing to handle the job – had to be eliminated from consideration because of an exclusivity agreement made with a Hancock County hospital.

“We were just notified by Dr. Capito that he has an exclusivity contract with Weirton Medical Center, which prevents him from serving, even in an interim basis as the public health officer,” Plesa said.

The board also confirmed no other employee in the health department is certified to handle the services (they are required to be handled by a medical doctor). The board is trying to find an interim local health director for the time being, it was announced.

As a result, the board will reconvene 3 p.m. Friday to select an interim public health officer. That special meeting will be held at the Hancock County Commission meeting room, located at the Hancock County Courthouse.

Meanwhile, in response to Tuesday’s decision by the board, the Eastern Division of the American Lung Association issued a statement, saying it was “saddened and extremely disappointed” over the decision to allow smoking again at the casinos and gaming cafes.

“Every year, over 41,000 people in the U.S. die from secondhand smoke exposure,” the statement read. “Children, pregnant women, older people and people with heart or breathing problems like asthma or COPD are at greatest risk, but even healthy people should avoid secondhand smoke.

“The best way to protect casino patrons and workers from being exposed to toxic levels of secondhand smoke is to eliminate it.”

The association also stated that individuals who work at the casinos and gaming cafes “are dependent on their jobs to feed their families, and shouldn’t be forced to be exposed to second hand smoke because of a decision to protect a bottom line.”

The association added that it supports measures to require an entirely smoke-free environment to protect public health, and that the state should consider more smoke-free laws for the health and well-being of its citizens.

“All Americans deserve to live, work, study and play in smoke-free environments,” the statement concluded.

When reached Wednesday, an individual with Mountaineer said the company was not issuing a statement at this time.