Norfolk and Haldimand’s new acting medical officer of health introduced himself to Norfolk council on Sept. 21.
Dr. Matthew Strauss, a native of the Kitchener area, spent much of August and early September fending off controversy over provocative remarks he has made on social media, in radio interviews, and in print about COVID-19 and public-health measures designed to contain it.
In his presentation to council, Strauss said his approach has changed now that he is the lead public-health official in Haldimand and Norfolk.
Strauss said some of his past remarks were meant to be “eye-catching” in order to generate thought and discussion. Strauss told Norfolk council, which serves as the board of health for both counties, that his communications strategy has changed now that he is serving in an official, public-health capacity.
“It’s clear to me that the social-media presence should reflect my new role,” Strauss said.
In his presentation, Strauss emphasized that he is pro-vaccine. On the basis of past statements and social media postings, some have questioned Strauss’s commitment to public-health measures in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Strauss has been especially critical of across-the-board, open-ended lockdowns because he maintains they damage public health in ways that pandemic viruses do not. He has cited the toll they take in terms of despair and mental health and the contribution this makes to pathologies such as alcohol, drug abuse and suicide.
“All of us have our own views,” Langton Coun. Linda Vandendriessche told Strauss. “But we have to keep them controlled. I know you will do that and adhere to the rules handed down by the Province of Ontario.”
Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act emerged as an irritant between the Norfolk and Haldimand board of health and the previous medical officer of health, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai. Board members complained they had to take the heat for these measures even though, in most cases, they were not consulted before they were imposed.
With that in mind, Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus asked Strauss if he, too, would be inclined to act unilaterally on these matters. Strauss replied that his approach on such issues will be collaborative where circumstances allow.
“It is my intention to consult with the board of health as much as possible when that is necessary,” Strauss said. “The board of health has an important and consultative role to play in these decisions.
“I would look forward to receiving advice from the board with the caveat that some Section 22 orders have to be made on an urgent basis. In such an instance, I would attempt to consult with the board chair (Mayor Kristal Chopp).”
Local medical officers of health must adhere to the basic public health guidelines issued by the province’s chief medical officer of health. However, under provincial law, local medical officers of health can go above and beyond the provincial standard.
An example where Nesathurai did so include his Section 22 order capping bunkhouse occupancy for offshore workers during their mandatory, 14-day quarantine period at three. Farmers in Norfolk and Haldimand complained this prevented them from situating their workforces in a timely manner, putting crops at risk while placing them at a competitive disadvantage to farmers in neighbouring jurisdictions who were not similarly constrained.
Strauss told council he is impressed with the calibre of staff at the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit and that he hopes to lead by consensus. He stressed that he wants to put this summer’s controversy involving his appointment behind him and move on with the business of safeguarding public health in Norfolk and Haldimand.
“I hope we come to view that as water under the bridge very soon,” he said.
Strauss’s first day on the job was Sept. 14.