Dr. Deena Hinshaw out as Alberta's chief medical officer of health

Dr. Deena Hinshaw served as Alberta's chief medical officer of health throughout the first 2.5 years of the pandemic, becoming a familiar figure throughout the province due to her regular COVID-19 updates. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Dr. Deena Hinshaw served as Alberta's chief medical officer of health throughout the first 2.5 years of the pandemic, becoming a familiar figure throughout the province due to her regular COVID-19 updates. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Dr. Deena Hinshaw is no longer Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

In a news release Monday, the provincial government announced Hinshaw will be replaced by Dr. Mark Joffe, an Alberta Health Services vice-president.

Joffe's interim term began Monday and will continue until the health minister rescinds the appointment, the news release said. He will continue in his current contract with AHS with no additional compensation as chief medical officer of health.

Health Minister Jason Copping said in the release that Joffe has dedicated himself to improving Albertans' health throughout his career.

"He brings this wealth of experience and knowledge to the role of chief medical officer of health. I look forward to working with him," Copping said.

"I also wish to thank Dr. Deena Hinshaw for her service and dedication to Albertans through the past several years."

When Danielle Smith was sworn in as Alberta's premier on Oct. 11, she said she would replace Hinshaw and recruit a new team of advisers in public health who consider COVID-19 an endemic disease.

Less than five weeks later, Smith made good on part of that promise.

Smith has made it clear that she blames both Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services for failing to deliver the best advice and care for Albertans as the hospital system came close to buckling in successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health," Smith told reporters on Oct. 22.

Hinshaw was appointed Alberta's chief medical officer of health in January 2019. Her contract was set to expire in 2024.

Dr. Verna Yiu, who often appeared alongside Hinshaw at news conferences updating Albertans on COVID-19 and its impacts on the health-care system, left as president and CEO at Alberta Health Services in April. Yiu's contract had been extended through to 2023.

Yiu is now interim provost and vice-president academic at the University of Alberta for a two-year term.

Polarizing figure

Hinshaw became a familiar figure across the province through hundreds of regularly-scheduled COVID-19 updates, garnering both the respect and ire of the public for the advice she provided to government.

She was criticized for accepting an advisory role with the province's United Conservative government rather than exercising her full powers to combat the emergency.

The nadir came in the summer of 2021, when the province cancelled almost all health restrictions before any other province, promised the "best summer ever" and scoffed at suggestions COVID-19 could return and overwhelm the health system.

But in the fall, COVID-19 came within days of cratering the system and compelling then-premier Jason Kenney and Hinshaw to do a U-turn, bring back restrictions and introduce highly divisive vaccine passports.

Hinshaw and Kenney both later admitted opening up too soon  was a mistake based on flawed projections. Hinshaw, once admired, was mocked and criticized.

In August, there was public outrage when it was revealed Hinshaw had been paid a $228,000 bonus on top of her regular $363,000 salary in 2021.

Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta
Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

Joffe sometimes joined her at the podium. Joffe, from Calgary, earned his medical degree from the University of Calgary in 1982 and has had a specialty practice in infectious diseases.

His new role falls under Alberta Health.

'Very difficult job:' former medical health officer

Dr. James Talbot, who was chief medical officer of health from 2012 to 2015, said Hinshaw was a key player in preventing more deaths from COVID-19 and that replacing her is a loss for Albertans.

"Dr. Hinshaw performed admirably in the position and it was a very difficult job to do," Talbot said in a CBC News interview Monday.

"I think the province was lucky to have her in that one-in-100-year threat that we faced that tragically ended up killing 5,000 Albertans, but could have killed far more, if it hadn't been for her leadership."

With Joffe taking over her role, Talbot said Albertans will continue to be in good hands considering Joffe's expertise in infectious diseases.

"Although he's not formally trained in public health, he does have a comparable background. I know him as a scientist who understands the importance of following science," he said.

Talbot said finding someone to take on the role permanently will be difficult because of the typically short lifespan of the appointment.

"Their contracts haven't been renewed, they've been dismissed arbitrarily, and they've been criticized unfairly. Add that to a political leadership that refuses to follow science, it makes it a very difficult job to make attractive," Talbot said.

Opposition responds

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Joffe needs to speak to Albertans immediately to address concerns over rising rates of respiratory illnesses among children and jammed hospitals and emergency wards.

"I hope Albertans hear from Dr. Joffe as soon as possible. Albertans deserve transparency from their government on how they will address the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, while hospitals continue to operate over capacity and children miss school due to illness at significant rates," Shepherd said in a statement.