'Political preferences' played role in N.B. COVID decisions, says top medical officer

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's outgoing chief medical health officer said Thursday that "political preferences" helped inform the decisions that were made at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Jennifer Russell gave a two-hour presentation to a legislature committee during which she displayed a slide on how the province's public health department arrived at decisions during the pandemic. The slide mentioned community health issues and local context; research; public health expertise; public health resources and community and political preferences and actions.

After the presentation, Russell was not forthcoming with reporters about how politics informed the government's COVID-19 recommendations. "I felt that every single time we went to COVID cabinet … there were fulsome discussions there about whatever the recommendations were as well as the impacts of operationalizing any recommendation.”

Various government departments would weigh in on her advice, she said, and the ultimate decision was made by the cabinet of Premier Blaine Higgs. But Russell said she wouldn't tell cabinet members what her preferred public health recommendations were.

"We would make recommendations with the pros and cons and there would be a very balanced and thorough discussion."

Russell didn't give examples and was criticized by the opposition parties for her answers at committee.

Megan Mitton, Green Party advocate for health, called Russell's presentation "quite opaque" and "quite hard to understand."

"I do think political preferences played a role," Mitton said. "I've been concerned for a very long time about the lack of independence of the chief medical officer. And I have a lot of concern about the process that we heard described today."

Russell seemed reluctant to acknowledge that COVID-19 was an airborne disease. When asked in committee whether it was, she replied: "I stand with my colleagues across the country in terms of what the evidence shows. And so that's my answer."

Later in the session, she circled back to the question, saying there are many ways in which COVID-19 is transmitted, including through large and small droplets.

"And those small droplets — yes, can be airborne," she said.

Mitton suggested that if government officials don't acknowledge that the virus is airborne, "then you're not going to pay as much attention to things like ventilation."

"I think it's very important that it be acknowledged," Mitton said. "It's science that needs to be clearly stated."

Russell, who guided the province through the height of the pandemic, will join the University of New Brunswick this fall as the executive director leading an institute of population health.

When Mitton pressed her on whether the government did not follow her recommendations, Russell said she was "very comfortable" with how the process of decision-making unfolded.

"All the pros and cons for every option and every recommendation was always on the table, was always being discussed."

Liberal health critic Rob McKee asked Russell if she was "directly involved in the decision-making process."

The doctor replied that her job as a civil servant was to advise the government.

"I feel that I had ample opportunity to provide that advice, not only the advice and the recommendations, but also the pros and cons, and also hear from my colleagues about the impacts of any decision with respect to how stringent a measure was, in terms of the impact on society," she said.

McKee said that response from Russell was "evasive" and "murky," adding that "it was hard to get clear-cut answers from her."

"Whether she followed the government on recommendations, toeing the political line when there should be a level of independence in these situations. I think that was lacking, and that there would be speculation for political interference on certain issues, for sure."

When asked if an in-depth review was needed on the province's COVID-19 response, he said he would await the auditor general's report on the pandemic.

A September report by auditor general Paul Martin on the province's response to COVID-19 was criticized by the Opposition because it didn't address a number of issues. The next report is expected in December.

"If it's anything like the one that we just had, I think we'll continue to have unanswered questions," McKee said. "(COVID-19) is a one-in-100-year type of event that I think merits an in-depth review."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press