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Canada’s chief public health officers take centre stage amid COVID-19 crisis

By TESSIE SANCI      
Federal officers, such as Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Howard Njoo, and provincial chief doctors, are involved in daily live press conferences during which they speak directly to Canadians, informing them on the country's caseload, emphasizing the need for social distancing, and, at times, offering non-medical guidance amid extraordinary circumstances.
Dr. Theresa Tam and her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, have become recurring fixtures in Canadians' lives, thanks to their public-facing role in communicating the feds' response to COVID-19 pandemic. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
 

Chief public health officers across the country now have a public profile never before seen in this country, thanks to their position as the scientific and medical voices of reason during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Federal officers such as Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Howard Njoo, and provincial chief doctors, including British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry and Ontario’s Dr. David Williams, are involved in daily live press conferences during which they speak directly to Canadians, informing them on the country’s caseload,  emphasizing the need for social distancing, and, at times, offering non-medical guidance amid extraordinary circumstances.

In addition to helping lead the government’s public messaging, the doctors are members of a special advisory committee that convenes daily to swap updates.

These are the individuals who are guiding elected officials on where Canada goes next in its efforts to “plank the curve” and control the transmission of COVID-19:

 

Canada

Dr. Theresa Tam was named chief public health officer for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in June 2017. As an employee of the Government of Canada, she previously served as the deputy officer and assistant deputy minister for infectious disease prevention and control. Her official government biography describes her as having “expertise in immunization, infectious disease, emergency preparedness and global health security.”

Dr. Tam previously served on emergency committees for the World Health Organization related to Ebola, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and poliovirus. In February 2017, she told the Canadian Medical Association Journal in February 2017 that her background in field epidemiology, travel health, emergency medicine, and pandemic preparedness led to her join those committees.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Dr. Tam was on the front lines helping patients out of Ottawa’s emergency operations centre. 

In August 2019, she told Chatelaine magazine that her “job is to prepare for the unknown.” On pandemics, Tam said, every pandemic, no matter how many one has lived through, is “always new.”

 

Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer, delivers the agency’s French-language briefing to reporters alongside Dr. Tam, and steps in for her during pressers when she is unavailable.

Dr. Njoo has held his current role since April 2016, and has been employed with the agency since January 2005. In that time, some of his titles have included interim chief science officer and director general for the Centre for Communicable Diseases and Infection Control, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before the establishment of the agency in 2004, Njoo held multiple positions within Health Canada in the areas of infectious and chronic diseases, emergency preparedness and response. He also spent close to five years as an associate medical officer of health for the City of Toronto. 

Ontario

Dr. David Williams. Photograph courtesy of the Government of Ontario

Dr. David Williams has been in his post as chief medical health officer since 2016. In a public health career of more than 25 years, he has jumped back and forth between serving the Province of Ontario and the City of Thunder Bay, Ont. Between 2011 and 2015, and 1991 to 2005, he was the medical officer of health for Thunder Bay’s district board of health. The years 2005 to 2011 saw him working at the province’s health ministry and long-term care, in the areas of infectious disease and environmental health. 

 Tessie Sanci is editor of Hill Times Research, owned by Hill Times Publishing. 

The Hill Times