Charleston’s program was nationally recognized, but it was criticized by the city’s mayor when Dr. Gupta was the health commissioner. Dr. Gupta’s department issued an audit that found fault with the program, including shoddy record keeping, which led to the program’s decertification after the city had already shut it down.
Public health experts said its closure had a chilling effect on other programs, and kept some from getting off the ground.
As a state health official, Dr. Gupta had no authority to stop the closure. In a 2018 interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting shortly before he left the health commissioner’s job, Dr. Gupta said that the closure was “not in the best interest of the community” and that needle exchange programs like Charleston’s should not be shut down “reactively.”
But critics faulted him for not using his platform forcefully enough to defend the program.
Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale University and a longtime AIDS activist, on Tuesday called Dr. Gupta a “terrible choice” who “represents a return to the old ways of thinking about drug use in America, and is not the forward-thinking leader we need right now.”
Other experts said that Dr. Gupta was caught in a difficult situation with the battle over the syringe exchange. Mr. Raymond, while describing the closure of the Charleston program as “a tragedy,” called Dr. Gupta an “excellent choice.” That assessment was echoed by Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who worked with Dr. Gupta to address the opioid crisis in West Virginia.
“He knows the value of syringe service programs, he understands the evidence on harm reduction and he is very supportive,” Dr. Sharfstein said. “West Virginia is a very difficult environment for discussion of these topics, and he had to navigate under those constraints.”
The White House announced the selection of Dr. Gupta in a statement on Tuesday, along with 10 other nominations, including that of Jeff Flake, the former Republican senator from Arizona, to be the ambassador to Turkey and that of the writer Atul Gawande to a post at the U.S. Agency for International Development.