The Haldimand Norfolk board of health was planning to meet with legal counsel on Sept. 13 about the appointment of Dr. Matt Strauss as the area’s new acting medical officer of health.
The move follows a board meeting on Sept. 7 at which some members said they were having second thoughts about hiring Strauss, whose opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns has stirred controversy and prompted the Ontario Liberals to call for the province to veto his selection.
“I am at the point in my life where I am ready to take ownership when a mistake is made,” said Norfolk Coun. Kim Huffman. “I’m fully taking responsibility for making a mistake.
“Over the course of this weekend, I have spoken with educators, physicians, business owners, seniors, parents, first responders and lawyers – all members of our community – and they are aghast that this is who we are putting in charge of our public health.
“I am whole-heartedly – without a doubt in my mind – revoking my support of Dr. Matt Strauss as acting medical officer of health.”
Also expressing reservations about Strauss’s hiring were councillors Amy Martin, Linda Vandendriessche and Tom Masschaele.
During the Sept. 7 meeting, staff recommended the board continue its deliberations behind closed doors.
Later, a motion was put forward to allow Strauss to speak to the board and address any questions. That was defeated 6-3. Instead, the board were to discuss his hiring at a meeting with lawyers on Sept. 13.
Strauss’s appointment, effective Sept. 14, was unanimously approved by health board members and announced on Sept. 3.
He is to succeed Dr. Alex Hukowich, who has been serving as interim acting medical officer of health since May. Hukowich took over form Dr. Shanker Nesathurai.
An assistant professor of medicine at Queen’s University, Strauss has tweeted on multiple occasions that he opposes lockdowns, saying they aren’t effective in preventing deaths from COVID-19.
The announcement of Strauss’s appointment provoked a backlash in the community. In response to the controversy, Strauss shared a defence of his position that was published on the website of the Port Dover Maple Leaf newspaper.
“In the practice of medicine – clinical or otherwise – the ancient ethic of ‘first do no harm’ is paramount,” he said. “I do believe that further use of lockdown measures must therefore take their potential harms into account.
“I note, with dismay, that opioid deaths among young Ontarians more than tripled over the first period of the lockdown in 2020.”
In previous writings, Strauss also expressed concern over an escalation in medical and social problems arising from lockdown measures. These include suicide, depression, mental illness, spousal abuse, homicide, and neglect of the elderly and infirm among them.
“I welcome conversation and fair criticism of these science-based views,” he said. “Such discourse is part of the scientific process. The politicization of my appointment and ad hominem attacks against me, conversely, are not. In fact, such attempts are themselves anti-scientific. Science is not a popularity contest, nor is it an agglomeration of credentialed opinion.”
Norfolk council serves as the health board for both Norfolk and Haldimand counties. The counties share a health unit and Norfolk council was deemed the management board 20 years ago due to the county’s larger population.
Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp, chair of the health board, defended Strauss’s hiring, saying all council members were made aware of his views.
Chopp pointed out during the Sept. 7 board meeting that everyone at the table had expressed skepticism about lockdown measures and their efficacy since the global pandemic was declared in March, 2020.
“Differences of opinion make the world go around,” Chopp said. “We have all questioned some of the lockdown measures here in Haldimand and in Norfolk.”
Meantime, Ontario’s top doctor said he can take action if it appears public measures in Haldimand-Norfolk aren’t sufficient to protect residents from COVID-19 under Strauss.
Askled to comment on the appointment of Strauss, Dr. Kieran Moore repeated that the Haldimand-Norfolk board of health did not need his approval or that of the Ministry of Health in order to hire Strauss for an interim position.
But he said it is his duty as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to monitor the situation in all health units.
“If and when this individual is hired…if it is my professional opinion that the population is not being protected to the utmost through public health measures, I do have actions that I can take under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to ensure that all citizens in Haldimand-Norfolk are protected against COVID-19,” he said.
Moore added the region has struggled to find a full-time medical officer of health.
“We’re very willing to continue to work with them to try to recruit someone who has the credentials required… and to provide guidance to them.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Matt Strauss had described business owners who open in violation of public health orders as “heroes.”