Alberta has a new chief medical officer of health as of Monday afternoon, but is Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s replacement as the province’s leading medical expert the right fit for the position?
Dr. Mark Joffe, an infectious disease specialist and high-level Alberta Health Services official, was appointed interim chief medical officer of health for Alberta Monday by Premier Danielle Smith. While Joffe has experience handling the pandemic and with infectious disease, he does not have experience or training in public health – something that one would expect of an official at the CMOH level, said Dr. James Talbot, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and former chief medical officer of health.
Smith made it very clear that she was not happy with the way Hinshaw, who had held the CMOH position since January 2019, handled the pandemic. And she continues to reinforce messaging that she will not reinstate mask mandates or encourage vaccinations to help fight infectious illnesses like the flu and COVID-19, despite scientific evidence.
The province is required to have a CMOH under the provincial health act, Talbot explained. The clock began ticking as soon as it was announced that Hinshaw would no longer hold the position. And now there is concern over the fact that Joffe is only an interim officer, meaning he likely won’t stay in the role for long.
“I assume that’s what the fact that it’s an interim position means – that they’re trying to buy time to do a more thorough search,” said Talbot, who thinks the province is going to have a hard time filling the position due to the public pressure of the job and “if they’re looking for someone who’s prepared to push the beliefs that we’ve heard so far, they’re looking for someone who doesn’t understand science.”
“Dr. Joffe is a scientist. He does know the importance of science and he’s going to work for people who don’t seem to understand that.”
The CMOH is supposed to make all public health orders, so, even as interim officer, Joffe should have the independence to make public health decisions, said Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor of public health at the University of Calgary.
“However, we’ve heard from Premier Smith that changes are forthcoming that would likely limit the independence of that individual. The premier seems determined to centralize decision-making for public health in her cabinet, and to not have schools or the new chief medical officer of health making decisions that would do things like bring back masking.”
This messaging from the premier around viral infections is concerning, Hardcastle said.
“I think that her messaging around having an immunity deficit due to not being exposed to germs over the last few years is problematic messaging and is not evidence-based. And I think that her blaming AHS for (hospital) capacity issues is problematic, as well,” Hardcastle said.
At a press conference Monday, Smith addressed the issue of overflowing emergency rooms, especially pediatrics, as a result of higher-than-normal volumes of respiratory infections in children. She said what the province needs is better access to medication that will reduce fever, specifically children’s Tylenol, which has been in short supply in Canada. She said she would let her medical advisory team address the remainder of the issues causing thousands of students to stay home from school and parents to spend up to 16 hours on emergency room wait lists with their sick children.
“From a political perspective, she’s not in a position where she can bring back stringent public health restrictions. I think it would be difficult for her politically leading up to an election,” said Hardcastle. “But there’s no reason she can’t have stronger messaging where she encourages people to mask, she encourages people to get vaccinated, and we’re really not seeing that messaging from her. Instead, we’re seeing her levy some criticisms against masks that aren’t evidence-based.”
Now, officials, experts and parents are calling for Joffe, as a medical expert, to address the public and provide his recommendations on how the province moves forward with the rising health-care crisis.
Global News asked Alberta Health for an interview with Joffe on Tuesday. The government department said it was giving him time to settle into his new role before having him consider interview requests but offered a statement issued by Joffe.
“I am pleased to have been asked to take on the role of chief medical officer of health,” the statement reads. “I look forward to working with Alberta Health officials and my colleagues within Alberta Health Services on public health issues that are relevant to Albertans.
“As I have always done, I will make evidence-informed decisions and provide advice that is guided by my experience, training and knowledge.”
— with files from Kim Smith, Global News