Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Medical Officer of Health did not distinguish herself before the province’s Public Accounts committee on Thursday and the government of Premier Blaine Higgs does not deserve praise for its public health print-out either.
In his early days as Premier, Mr. Higgs treated “politics” as a dirty word, something he would not soil his hands with. But in his handling of the COVID pandemic, the Premier has acted in a highly “political” way, demonstrating that he did not want the Medical Officer of a Health making decisions about how to protect public health in the province.
The classic example of this occurred in the summer of 2021 when the government lifted all protective measures against COVID 19. This action was widely viewed as premature, and likely to expose the province to further public health dangers. Today, COVID is bursting out again, and New Brunswick's COVID-19 hazard index is the highest in Canada, according to a recent study by a respected researcher.
Now, a new report by the New Brunswick Auditor-General finds that the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health sits at the bottom of New Brunswick's COVID-19 pandemic decision-making hierarchy. In simple terms this appears to mean that there are eight layers of government with greater impact on pandemic decision-making, than the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. It is no secret that in New Brunswick Premier Higgs takes a very hefty role in all things to do with his government.
A case in point occurred much earlier when the then Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Health, Cristen Muecke spoke at a government COVID briefing in the absence of Dr. Russell, stating: "Given our current case numbers and the evidence of community spread, I urge all New Brunswickers to continue to wear a mask when they are in indoor public spaces." Muecke called this "a strong Public Health recommendation at this time."
The next day, during an interview with CBC's Information Morning Fredericton, Premier Higgs “undercut” Muecke's warning. "If you feel better wearing a mask, certainly do that, " the Premier said, "There's no harm in that." This can hardly be seen as staunch support for a senior public health official.
The CBC’s Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon has also has reported recently that Dr. Wayne MacDonald, a former New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer of Health is raising concerns about recent changes to the Public Health Act, which he says will give the Minister of Health more power in pandemics and other infectious disease outbreaks than the province's top public health doctor. Dr. MacDonald describes the amendments as "the official politicalization of public health.
Dr. MacDonald, who served as the Chief Medical Officer of Health for 10 years, has expressed concerns over the past year about "blurred lines" between the "political element" and Public Health.
Dr. Russell’s stature as Public Officer of Health does not rank up there with her counterparts Dr. Bonnie Henry in British Columbia or Dr. Robert Strang in Nova Scotia. Both Dr. Henry and Dr. Strang have been able to earn the affection of the public, combined with having important clout within their respective governments.
This year, it is the turn of New Brunswick doctors to put forward a name of one of their own to become the President of the powerful Canadian Medical Association (CMA). As of December 8, Dr. Russell is leaving her present public health role with the N.B. government to accept a position with the University of New Brunswick. She has also said she is seeking the CMA presidency.
It will be interesting to see who becomes CMA president, Dr. Russell or Dr. Margot Burnell, an oncologist with 30 years’ experience providing cancer care in the Saint John area.
The now nearly forgotten Truckers’ Blockade in Ottawa arose mainly due to COVID mandates. Especially since then, many Canadian governments have grown jittery about restrictions on individual freedoms. The “non-political” Premier Higgs has grown more sensitive to this than many of his Premier colleagues across the country. But, any Medical Officer of Health has a special role and responsibility to protect public health in his or her jurisdiction. In the message of a famous cough medicine commercial, “it tastes awful, but it works.”