According to state officials, Tierney pointed to flu season, anxiety and lack of hand washing as reasons for the hospital visits in a Jan. 18 conference call.
"We're in the middle of flu season and virus season. Many of us haven't been able to consistently wash our hands with soap and water. While the sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn't great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many do every winter." Tierney said, according to a news release.
While he mentioned nobody by name, Gupta seemed to directly contradict that statement.
"We obviously cannot explain away [symptoms] by saying it's the flu or something else. At this time, we shouldn't even try to," Gupta said.
He emphasized that symptoms people were seeing -- rashes, eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches -- were not necessarily caused by the chemical. But he also said that it was very likely that the number of affected people could be too low, not too high -- that many people decided to "tough it out" and never even went to the hospital.
Asked why he showed so much less certainty than Tierney, Gupta said, "Maybe the fact that this is not my first rodeo. I've been through these things and I've done this for a long time."
Tierney has been commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health since Nov. 1. Previously she had been a physician and associate quality director at Charleston Area Medical Center since 2010.
"We maybe have different philosophies," Tierney said after the hearing of her divergence with Gupta. "I feel that in public health we've got to be careful how we craft our statements to provide confidence to the public, especially when we're going on evidence-based medicine."
Asked if she felt she was providing confidence to the public, Tierney said, "I know I'm being honest, I know I'm being truthful and I know I'm being as transparent as I can, and if that doesn't give confidence, I'm kind of at a loss where else to go."
Tierney emphasized that the state has been consulting with a broad range of federal agencies -- ATSDR, CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health -- but declined to name any individual scientists, saying there were probably 50 to 60 of them.
"These experts are not always recognized by name, but by the agencies they serve," she said.
She also said there were "some confidentiality agreements involved."
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, asked Tierney for both the names of the scientists the state has consulted with and the detailed methodology behind the water tests that the state has conducted. Unger said that when federal agencies release reports, they usually come with names at the top.
"They put their names on their reports. This veil of secrecy is very unusual," Unger said after the hearing. "That's where the trust factor is falling down."
Reach David Gutman at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.