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A new breed of celebrity in the age of COVID-19: the chief medical officer


Day after day, premiers have announced new restrictions on Canadians' civil liberties that they say are critical to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

But it is the chief medical officers at their side who provide the science buttressing the calls for sacrifice. Some have become stars in their own right, displaying a kind of televisual bedside manner that combines a reassuring, fact-based approach with occasional levity.

Quebec's chief doctor, Horacio Arruda, recently shared his weekend self-isolation plan to bake Portuguese tarts, while Alberta's Deena Hinshaw recently wore a periodic-table-themed dress that lit up social media.

The scientists are pushing aside athletes and other entertainers for the public's attention as citizens try to navigate through unprecedented times.

Behavioural scientist Samuel Veissiere, a McGill University professor of psychiatry, said that confronted with a vague sense of impending doom, people want to reduce uncertainty.

"They want meaning, and they are looking to people they perceive as experts to give them answers in terms of what's going to happen," Veissiere said in an interview Friday. "People want stats, numbers. They want answers."

Before the pandemic, academics often lamented the public's loss of trust in institutions and in expert knowledge, Veissiere said. But that might be changing.

"People are becoming a little more humble," he said. "I think they are becoming aware of just, perhaps, the limitations of individualism and how important it is to work together as a community, including in identifying reliable sources of information."

These are some of the key figures helping Canadians comprehend an unfamiliar, invisible enemy.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada

The country's chief public health officer knows pandemics, and what it takes to fight them.

Each day, Tam's steely, distinctive voice reminds Canadians that there's little public health officials can do on their own, and everyone has a role to play in protecting the community from COVID-19.

Her main job is to provide advice to the federal minister of health, and she is responsible for heading the Public Health Agency of Canada.

She is also the main co-ordinator among public health agencies across the country. In a system where each province manages its own health system, perhaps her most important job is to be Canada's unifying and rallying voice in the fight against COVID-19.

Internationally, she has advised the World Health Organization on infectious diseases like Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and poliovirus.

Born in Hong Kong, Tam got her medical degree in the United Kingdom before completing her pediatric residence at the University of Alberta and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta

Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has become the reassuring face of the response to COVID-19, delivering daily web updates to thousands in a Spockian tone, urging calm while not shying away from the fatal consequences of ignorance and indolence.

In doing so, Hinshaw has become a pseudo-celebrity in her own right. Twitter blew up with concern last week when Hinshaw announced she was self-isolating after waking up with cold symptoms. She delivered her update from home that day and was back at the podium the next day after testing negative for novel coronavirus.

When she wore a dress patterned on chemistry's periodic table, the garment's Victoria manufacturer received a slew of orders for it.

Some on social media are calling for her to be the next parade marshal for the Calgary Stampede.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia

When Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, cried during a press conference at which she confirmed two elderly people had contracted COVID-19 in a long-term care home, her compassion and resolve was described by colleagues and friends as a galvanizing moment in Canada's fight against the global virus.

Henry paused to compose herself before warning that Canada's elderly are most at risk from COVID-19, and she urged everybody to do what they can to protect the vulnerable.

Those who know Henry say she is both knowledgeable and battle-tested. Appointed to the position in 2018, she is an experienced virus hunter who has battled SARS, Ebola, H1N1 and polio during her career.

Henry headed the B.C. Centre for Disease Control on an acting basis during H1N1 and is the author of "Soap and Water and Common Sense," a guide to staying healthy in a microbe-filled world.

Former B.C. health minister Terry Lake called her "the voice of reason and calm."

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia

Strang was no stranger to Nova Scotians before the COVID-19 pandemic, having frequently spoken out on prominent health issues.

The province's chief medical officer since 2007, Strang has been a passionate anti-smoking advocate, and last May he lent his voice to a successful campaign to have rugby reinstated in the province's high schools.

In recent days, he's used his authority to monitor social media and admonish those spreading rumours and false information about the novel coronavirus. He also took people to task for attempting to "out" others who weren't self-isolating upon their return from vacation, urging the public to leave the detective work to health officials.

Strang completed his community medicine residency in 1997 in British Columbia. He worked in that province as an associate medical officer of health until 1999, when he moved to Halifax.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec

When Arruda recently told Quebecers that he would spend part of the weekend baking to take his mind off the COVID-19 pandemic, it was his way of lightening the daily barrage of bad news about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Arruda's colourful language and his stern but fact-based approach to the province's pandemic response has endeared him to many Quebecers.

Photos and videos of him are circulating widely on social media, including an image of his face edited onto a photo of actor Will Smith, whose character in the 2007 movie, "I am Legend," fights a viral outbreak in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

"I don't want to distress people. I don't want to make people anxious," Arruda recently said. "Don't be anxious. If you're anxious, call somebody, try to have an activity that you love. Everybody is different. It could be yoga, it could be music, it could be dancing .... Just be innovative."

Arruda, 59, the province's director of public health since 2012, played a central role after the Lac-Megantic rail disaster that claimed 47 lives. A medical specialist in community health, he has focused on epidemiology and the prevention and control of infectious diseases.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick

Russell has been put under the spotlight as her province navigates through a state of emergency imposed Thursday by Premier Blaine Higgs on her recommendation. The province's chief medical officer of health since 2015, Russell has a background working for the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs.

She weaves directives to citizens about avoiding mass gatherings and implementing social distancing with calls for people to stay connected with one another by phone or through social media, to eat well, exercise and take deep breaths.

"It is up to us to take actions that will slow the spread of the virus, and give our doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals the best chance to cope with its impact," Russell said last week.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba

Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, recently told reporters he would work every day until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

Roussin and Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer, have drawn praise for providing up-to-date information about the spread of the virus in the province.

Roussin's calm demeanour and straightforward answers in the province's daily online briefings have been noted. He takes time to discuss the unique challenges COVID-19 poses for Manitoba's Indigenous population and has held a specific news conference to discuss how northern First Nations communities can stay safe during the pandemic.

A specialist in public health and preventive medicine, Roussin worked with the federal First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and was a medical officer of health for northern Manitoba before taking up his current position.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto

Toronto's top public health doctor is used to making headlines.

De Villa has previously commanded coverage for criticizing Ontario's loosened alcohol regulations and calling for the decriminalization of all personal-use drugs in Canada, saying drug use should be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.

She also called gun violence a growing public health concern, prompting the Toronto Board of Health to ask the prime minister to ban the sale of handguns.

Since COVID-19 was first reported in Canada in late January in a Toronto-based patient who had recently returned from China, de Villa has urged calm and vigilance instead of panic and apathy.

A recent video clip of her laying out the dos and don'ts of social distancing — do stay home, don't hang out with friends or go shopping — attracted much attention online, and a Twitter account has been created celebrating her stylish scarves.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador

Fitzgerald has urged residents to practise social distancing to protect others in the community while reminding them to exercise, tend to their mental health and check in on family and friends.

On Friday, she told people it's normal to be afraid and assured them health officials are working to protect them.

Newfoundland and Labrador's interim chief medical officer of health has attracted praise from politicians for leading her small staff through the province's pandemic response, and she has become popular on social media.

"We removed the title 'interim,' but she hasn't signed a contract yet, and I don't know whether that's intentional or not," Health Minister John Haggie joked Friday. Premier Dwight Ball suggested there would be widespread support for keeping her in the job.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon

Hanley studied medicine at the University of Alberta, the University of Liverpool and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

He came to the chief medical officer job in Yukon from being chief of emergency at the Whitehorse General Hospital, where he still practises part-time.

His experience includes practices in rural and inner-city locations around Canada and internationally. He has spent many years working in the Canadian Arctic. He has also seen regular service with Doctors Without Borders and other relief organizations.

During his time in Yukon, Hanley has worked to create partnerships in the territory's small and far-flung communities to strengthen its overall public health system.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan

Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer since 2012, has been the calm face at the front of Saskatchewan's response to COVID-19.

He's been on the front lines of Saskatchewan's public health since 2009, when he was named deputy chief medical health officer.

Prior to that he worked internationally as an internist. He has also worked as a public health expert with multilateral health and donor agencies.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020

— With files from Laura Osman, Dean Bennett, Dirk Meissner, Sidhartha Banerjee, Keith Doucette, Julian McKenzie, Kelly Geraldine Malone, Nicole Thompson, Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Bob Weber

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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