3 Women Who Stood Up

On Monday, three women medical doctors came out with recommendations to continue with the face mask mandate for the immediate future.  It’s not that just women doctors have come forward to talk about continuing with Covid protocols, but it seems that women have led the discussion. 

So far, few men have insisted we are moving too fast in withdrawing the mask mandate, which is what the women doctors have said.  Dr Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, is one of the men who refuses to endorse keeping mask mandates.  He has gone from speaking at weekly media conferences which updated the province on Covid issues to basically relinquishing his platform.  Is he being reined in by Premier Houston? Houston – a chartered accountant with no special medical knowledge – insists everyone will be safe a week from now— as mask mandates for indoor events, shopping, schools, buses, taxis and more are eliminated, and limits on indoor gatherings and social distancing will be a thing of the past. 

Dr Lisa Barrett: don’t drop the mask mandate

The first woman physician to sound the alarm was Dr Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and a member of Nova Scotia’s Expert Vaccine Panel.  She is also an Assistant professor at the medical school at Dalhousie University.  Barrett, who is herself now just recovering from Covid,  was interviewed by CBC  Portia Clark on Feb. 25.  Dr Barrett said, “I think there is a lot of concern about removing altogether basic things like masking. We really do need to not just do standard testing, standard surveillance. …If we have easy ways of going forward that keep not just our vulnerable, but other people in our population, safe while we get through the next three to six months and understand more about what the virus is going to do, that makes great sense.”

Also just the other night on the CBC news, Dr Barrett reiterated that we were not out of the woods and there is no scientific reason to eliminate the mask mandate.  She urged the province not to give up on masks and social distancing indoors as the key means to stop the spread of Covid.

Covid risk on buses: low ceilings, little ventilation, lack of social distancing

Then it was Dr Iris Gorfinkel’s turn.  She is a regular medical columnist on CBC Radio’s  Main Street program.  Gorfinkel is a family doctor and a vaccine researcher in Toronto.  She suggested we should be in no hurry to eliminate the necessity of face masks for inside venues.   She pointed out that by removing the mandate for face masks for bus users for example, bus users could be at high risk of catching Covid.  That is because, according to Gorfinkel, buses have low ceilings, little ventilation (due to passengers’ reluctance to open bus windows due to cold weather) and also no social distancing. 

Below: clockwise from top left: students, masks on social media (McGill University); Dr Lisa Barrett (Twitter); masked bus users (Translink); OC Transpo ad; Dr Iris Gorfinkel (Twitter); Dr Jennifer Russell (CTV News).

Getting rid of masks: “reckless endangerment”

Dr Jennifer Russell,  New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has also stated in an interview on CBC Radio Monday, that there is no evidence it is wise to get rid of masks.  Russell’s comments were after a complaint by a Fredericton mother of two, Jessica Bleasdale.  Bleasdale wrote her complaint to Dr. Ed Schollenberg, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick.  She asked for medical proof that masks were indeed unnecessary according to Dr Russell.  Bleasdale cited her disabled son who required a one-on-one aide in school, felt both the aide and student should remain masked. Bleasdale called lifting the face mask mandate now  “reckless endangerment” of children and the vulnerable. 

Below: in New Brunswick — former chief medical officer of health, Dr Eilish Cleary (credit: CBC); Jessica Bleasdale and her family (photo contributed); Dr Ed Schollenberg (credit: CBC) 

Registrar Dr Schollenberg agreed with Bleasdale’s point; he said says the province could be headed for “a mess” with the lifting of COVID-19 mask mandates on Monday.  He blamed  “politics”.  On Mar. 10, Dr Schollenberg openly expressed the view that politicians expect said: “In the end these decisions are made by politicians, with whom [Russell] cannot openly disagree… .”  

NB premier Blaine Higgs totally disagreed.  “There is no political influence in this whatsoever,” he told reporters last Thursday. “That is a completely false statement.”

Still, Dr Schollenberg stood by his statements about the chief medical officer of health, “So it’s a very vulnerable position, and you can sort of see that when there’s a tension.”

He also said “I am aware of at least three chief medical officers of health [in three provinces] that have been fired because they disagreed with their bosses,” he said.  He cited New Brunswick’s Dr Eilish Cleary who said she was fired in 2015 by Brian Gallant’s Liberal government as one example.

Medical Officer of Health Dr Eilish Cleary: the NB government “threw her out like yesterday’s newspaper”

As Ted Flemming, the former NB Tory minister of health explained, after promising an open government, the year-old Liberal government threw Cleary “out like yesterday’s newspaper.”  Then-NDP leader Dominic Cardy echoed Flemming, “The Gallant Liberals campaigned on ensuring the independence of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. I don’t think anyone thought that meant firing her. “The Liberals are silencing New Brunswick’s most prominent government scientist. We cannot expect civil servants to do their job when even prominent public officials like Dr. Cleary are muzzled.”

In 2012, Dr Cleary wrote a report on the dangers of shale gas development to social and community health which the province’s Tory government considered not releasing.  Finally the government did release it. 

In 2015, Dr Cleary found health risks to humans in the spraying of forests with glyphosate.  NB’s major forest owners are JD Irving and NB Power.  At the time, Health Canada was reviewing the use of glyphosate which at first it said was not harmful.  But earlier in 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, considered glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

After being put on leave (against her wishes) for weeks, Dr Cleary was fired in December 2015 “without cause.”  At the time, local members of the Council of Canadians and others demonstrated in Fredericton and demanded her reinstatement.  Said Anne Pohl, one of the protest organizers, “She’s an action hero for us in New Brunswick.”

New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health for seven years was removed in 2015 for political considerations, so it is possible there is a threat to Dr Russell if she doesn’t toe the line.

In Quebec, the public health director Dr Horacio Arruda resigned in January 2022, acknowledging he had made errors in handling the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Though he offered to rescind his resignation if Premier Legault requested – that never happened.  Many in the media and the opposition parties felt Arruda was the sacrificial lamb for Legault –who had the ultimate responsibility for Quebec’s highest Covid-related death count in the country, and for other serious errors including a refusal to supply N-95 masks, and allowing nursing assistants to work in more than one care home which helped to spread Covid.  Arruda had been in his role for 12 years.

“If this were the typical provincial government, a comment like this, would be the precursor to the removal of Deena Hinshaw.”

Keith Brownsey, political scientist at Mt Royal University

In Alberta, Dr Deena Hinshaw – though not dismissed — was forced to take the blame for missteps on Covid protocols during its fourth wave in August 2021.  Alberta premier Jason Kenney accused her of not properly advising the government.  “Had there been further recommendations later in August to take additional measures, I would have immediately convened a cabinet committee meeting to approve those,” he said. 

But it turns out that Kenney was absent on holidays for at least three weeks in August, so the cabinet did not meet.  Keith Brownsey a political science professor  at Mt Royal University in Calgary called it “reprehensible” that the premier tried to shunt the blame over to Dr Hinshaw.  Brownsey insisted that public servants like Hinshaw  are to “provide advice and they’re to be politically neutral, you don’t pick on them.“   

Brownsey noted, “If this were the typical provincial government, a comment like this, would be the precursor to the removal of Deena Hinshaw.”

In Ontario, Doug Ford replaced the chief medical officer of health 15 months into the Pandemic.  While he didn’t exactly blame Dr David Williams for the high Covid death rate in Ontario, it was clear Ford thought Williams’ replacement, Dr Kieran Moore, would do a better job.  However, Dr Williams was replaced mere  months before he was set to retire.

What does this mean?

Well first, the medical officer of health is a politically sensitive job, and masters of MOH are the provincial premiers.  Premiers have political reasons including commerce, small business and voters to consider – not merely the health of residents.  Second, according to Registrar Dr Schollenberg at least three MOHs have been removed by their governments in recent years.  Finally the fact we have heard nothing about continuing to impose the mask mandate from either Dr Strang or the NS premier in recent weeks means that the decision has been made in favour of commerce, not necessarily people’s health. For example, the Chronicle Herald’s front page today news reveals that at least two long-term care homes in NS have had outbreaks of Covid in the last six days.

Oh, and yesterday’s Angus Reid poll suggests that nearly 73% of Canadians approve of extending the mask mandate. 

Featured image: Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait, mask added. Read more about art wearing masks here. More about this painting here.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming Bird (1940) by Frida Kahlo (Mexico).

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