Absurd hire gets the ‘live free or die’ treatment
Maybe you don’t think Dr. Matt Strauss is qualified to work in public health, but have you considered that famous public health dictum, live free or die? Strauss tweeted that in late August, and it’s an idea that lasted until the Romans came along, more or less, which is a pretty good run. Some places still follow it, to truly tragic results.
Anyway, the anti-lockdown, anti-restriction, anti-public health doctor was hired in early September to be the new interim acting medical officer of health in Haldimand-Norfolk in southwestern Ontario; that appointment was upheld 8-1 by the local board of health Monday night, which is also the local county council. There had been considerable consternation over Strauss’s qualifications before the council went behind closed doors, but it came out with a much softer approach, like people who had been told by the lawyers, well, you’d have to pay him anyway.
It is an absurd, backwards, political hire. Strauss is not trained in public health; he is an ICU doctor, but more prominently, he is a guy who has spent the pandemic condemning lockdowns and praising Florida and saying in a sincedeleted tweet he would rather give a child COVID than a Happy Meal. Maybe he doesn’t know Happy Meals come with apple slices now, and yogurt. Or that communicable diseases are communicable.
Mostly, Strauss is a doctor pretending to be a more qualified doctor who has also flirted with anti-mask sentiments, including in a 2020 conversation with independent Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MPP Randy Hillier, who has since descended into something like full-on lunacy.
This hiring is clearly the work of a political agenda from a part of Ontario represented by conservatives and dominated by the farming industry. The previous MOH, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, had to fight to protect migrant workers with proposed two-week quarantines, or by limiting how many could sleep in a single bunkhouse. (A legal challenge from farmers briefly overturned the move, before an appeal restored it. Indeed, Nesathurai tried to protect his constituents at large, and caught hell for it. Tobacco country may not care enough about what’s good for you.
So led by Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp, the counties clearly sought out an anti-lockdown voice instead. In fairness, you can’t say Strauss isn’t qualified to be interim medical officer of health, if only because, as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore noted, qualifications aren’t really applicable: You just have to be a doctor. To be the actual MOH, you’d need actual public health training: at least one year, but ideally three or more. Strauss … uh, doesn’t have any. When you have to explain that you’re not anti-science in your introductory letter, it may raise more questions than it purports to answer.
And so, we come to Moore. He has the power to not just rescind Strauss’s appointment but to suspend the board of health if he sees a risk to the public health of the region. Haldimand-Norfolk has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the province, at 74.4 per cent of those above the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated; beyond that, migrant workers have been poorly protected there before, and one died in the summer of 2020 as part of a massive outbreak. Strauss couldn’t lift a lockdown, but he can mismanage who is and isn’t considered a high-risk case, and could muck up case and contact management in many ways.
“We will first provide guidance and support,” said Moore. “He may be new to outbreak management and to the immunization strategy and we'll be monitoring adherence to best practices in that region. And if I have any concerns regarding the safety and health of that community, I can step in as the chief medical officer of health, and will.”
But by that measure, Moore should rescind the hire now. Sources tell the Star that Ontario’s medical officers of health spoke on a call last week about the appointment, and expressed both misgivings and mistrust. Would Strauss misuse or exploit information, especially regarding arguments over different approaches? Would infighting between public health officials give a province that didn’t value public health before the pandemic an excuse to push the overhaul they have long planned?
“I feel bad for the (workers in public health in Haldimand-Norfolk) and the people in that public health unit,” said one medical officer of health. “COVID is obviously a huge thing. They can play the games they want. But what are we going to do to get out of this pandemic, and convince people to get vaccinated, and ultimately to rebuild all the other aspects of public health that keep people healthy?
“How will he handle promoting healthy babies and healthy children? How will he handle the human health hazards and environmental investigations? Has he ever done one? Has he ever run any outbreak response, or even a COVID response? What’s he going to do about a restaurant adulterating food? Does he even know the regulations? These are some real questions. Public health is more than just COVID, but (that) is the only reason he’s being hired.
“Public health units have essentially been utterly destroyed. We have staff that are completely burnt out. None of our other programs are running the way that they should. We’re going to have to rebuild from the ground up once this is done. So if he’s the guy, I hope he has some help, because there’s a ton of work to do.”
Again, Strauss, who has resisted giving interviews, has presented no relevant qualifications for the public health aspect of this job. In his letter he calls attacks on him antiscientific because “science is not a popularity contest, nor is it an agglomeration of credentialed opinions.” Maybe there are provincial politicians whose anti-lockdown sympathies extend to Strauss’s ideas; maybe firing him could become a fight.
But the odds are he will fail, and hopefully this will be a cautionary tale without too much damage. Locals who install unqualified political appointees are like a hospital that lets the infectious diseases doctor do surgery. Making politics into public health has been our single biggest pandemic problem.
So good luck to Haldimand-Norfolk. The fourth wave has not quite taken off, thank goodness, though we’ll see about the schools. Delta is a different game, and we underestimate it at our peril. Strauss’s beloved Florida is a bonfire, and Alberta’s let-’er-rip approach is cratering its health system, and a fourth wave could crush us here, if handled poorly. When it comes to public health, it would be better to leave the amateurs where they belong.