New Brunswick

'Political preferences' played role in COVID-19 pandemic response, Russell reveals

"Political preferences" played a role in New Brunswick's COVID-19 pandemic response, the outgoing chief medical officer of health revealed to a legislative committee Thursday.

Chief medical officer of health says she presented advice to cabinet, but never stated her preferred choices

A woman seated at a table in front of a microphone with her hands folded.
Dr. Jennifer Russell, whose last day as chief medical officer of health is Dec. 8, faced questions from the public accounts committee of the New Brunswick Legislature for nearly two hours on Thursday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"Political preferences" played a role in New Brunswick's COVID-19 pandemic response, the outgoing chief medical officer of health revealed Thursday to a legislative committee.

In a slide show presentation, Dr. Jennifer Russell included a graphic titled "Public Health Evidence-Informed Decision Making."

It has five overlapping circles, with one labelled Public Health expertise. The others are: community health issues, local context; research; Public Health resources; and community and political preferences and actions.

Asked later by reporters whether she felt political pressure, Russell replied: "I felt that every single time we went to COVID cabinet and cabinet that there were fulsome discussions there about whatever the recommendations were as well as the impacts of operationalizing any recommendation."

Pressed on whether there were times her preferred course of action wasn't chosen, Russell revealed she never shared her "preferred choice."

WATCH | Russell says being at cabinet table was 'super-important': 

Dr. Jennifer Russell on political pressure during pandemic in N.B.

4 months ago
Duration 1:06
The chief medical officer of health appears before a committee of the legislature to answer questions about the province’s response to COVID-19.

"We would make recommendations with the pros and cons and there would be a very balanced and thorough discussion."

Russell was called to answer questions about her role in the decision-making process because the standing committee on public accounts was unsatisfied with the answers it had received from senior officials in the Executive Council Office about the auditor general's recent report on the government's pandemic response.

Liberal and Green committee members later described Russell's answers as "evasive," "murky" and "opaque."

A graphic with five circles, all different colours, showing Public Health expertise in the centre, surrounded by community health issues, local context; research; Public Health resources; as well as community and political preferences and actions.
This graphic was included in Russell's presentation to the committee. (Department of Health)

Denies being at bottom of decision-making hierarchy

Russell, who resigned last month, told the committee she was not at the bottom of the province's COVID-19 pandemic decision-making hierarchy, as the auditor general concluded.

"I'm not sure where the misconception or misperception of my role happened, but I'm glad that I'm able to clarify that today," she said.

An organizational chart in the auditor general's report, which shows the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health at the bottom, is "not completely accurate, in terms of the fact that I was part of cabinet meetings, I was part of the COVID cabinet," she said.

"So my involvement and participation at meetings was very high up at the top."

An organizational chart.
Russell told the committee this organizational chart in the auditor general's report 'is not completely accurate,' but later told reporters the chart itself 'is correct,' she just wanted to clarify that she was involved 'all the way up the chain.' (Office of the Auditor General)

When reporters later pointed out that Auditor General Paul Martin obtained the chart from the Department of Health, Russell confirmed the chart itself "is correct."

"The only clarification is that I was part of the organizations that were at the top. … So all the way up the chain of command in that chart, I was part of that. So that's the clarification that was needed," she said.

At the same time, Russell repeatedly stressed that cabinet ultimately made the decisions. She provided advice and recommendations, "coached with pros and cons, options and negative impacts, unintended consequences."

She wasn't aware if her recommendations were taken to the premier's office before being presented to cabinet, she said.

Job is to give advice

Liberal health critic Rob McKee asked her to clarify whether she was directly involved in the decision-making process. "I would say I was … in that my job as a civil servant is to give advice to the government.

"I feel that I had ample opportunity to provide that advice. Not only the advice and the recommendations, but also the pros and cons."

Public Health does not "work in a vacuum," she said. "We do have to look at the social determinants of health. We do have to look at the effect on the economy, on people's mental health, on people's education, on people's social connections, etcetera." Various government departments could weigh in before cabinet made decisions, she said.

A man wearing a suit speaking to a group of reporters holding microphones.
Liberal health critic Rob McKee, a member of the public accounts committee, asked Russell who she answers to. She said the deputy minister of Health. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Asked by Green Party health critic Megan Mitton whether the government ever didn't follow her recommendations, Russell replied she was "very comfortable with how the process … unfolded."

When McKee questioned whether it was a mistake to lift all protective measures in the summer of 2021, Russell did not answer directly.

Instead, she said the availability of vaccines changed what restrictions were going to be in place. "No decisions were made without an all-of-society lens."

Liberals may seek public inquiry

Mitton said she found Russell's answers about the decision-making process "quite opaque."

"It was quite hard to understand exactly what happened and I'm quite concerned with this process that seemed to be explained around recommendations or advice or whatever it may have been, that there didn't seem to be a real opinion attached," she told reporters.

I think New Brunswickers were under the impression that government was looking for recommendations, for opinions from Public Health experts to make these decisions, and [it] feels like that … clearly wasn't what was happening.— Megan Mitton, Green Party health critic

"I think New Brunswickers were under the impression that government was looking for recommendations, for opinions from Public Health experts to make these decisions, and [it] feels like that … clearly wasn't what was happening, it was just information being presented."

McKee wasn't impressed either. He described Russell's answers as "evasive."

"It's disappointing because I know a lot of New Brunswickers have a lot of questions that remain unanswered after today, even," he told reporters.

A key one for him, he said, is whether there was any political interference.

"Whether, you know, she followed the government on recommendations, you know, toeing the political line, when there should be a level of independence in these situations."

McKee said he'll wait to see what the auditor general's follow-up report, expected in December, says, but didn't rule out calling for a public inquiry.

"This is, you know, a one-in-100-year type of event that I think merits an in-depth review."

Acknowledges airborne transmission

McKee also challenged Russell on the fact she has never publicly acknowledged COVID is airborne and asked her to state her position.

Russell initially didn't answer, then gave a vague statement about standing with her colleagues across the country in terms of what the evidence shows.

Several minutes later in the middle of questioning by another member, she came back to it, and apologized for not being clear in her answer.

"There are many ways that COVID is transmitted," including large droplets on surfaces as well as small droplets. "And those small droplets, yes, can be airborne."

Lack of public updates addressed

Russell faced questions about the lack of public updates and her unavailability for media interviews or news conferences for the past several months.

She said all requests are "triaged" by the Department of Health with the level of response being appropriate for the level of risk.

"You can't elevate the risk of something in terms of speaking about something in a way that that then detracts from something that might be more serious in the future," she said.

"There were no questions that weren't answered, there was no information that wasn't provided."

Russell noted Dr. Yves Léger, the acting deputy chief medical officer of health, did recently hold a video call with reporters.

"It doesn't matter who from our team speaks, as long as those messages get out."

She "absolutely" feels like she has an unfettered ability to speak directly to New Brunswickers without any fear of consequences or reprisal from government, she said.

"I don't feel that there's any Public Health messaging that … I'm not able to share."

On Wednesday, the University of New Brunswick announced Russell has been hired as the executive director to lead a new institute on population health.

Russell's last day as chief medical officer of health is Dec. 8. She previously announced she is seeking the position of president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association.

With files from Jacques Poitras