Dr. Jennifer Russell has immunity against complaints, says College of Physicians and Surgeons

·3 min read
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, and other public health officers are immune to any 'action or other proceeding for damages,' according to the Public Health Act. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, and other public health officers are immune to any 'action or other proceeding for damages,' according to the Public Health Act. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)

All four official complaints filed against the province's chief medical officer of health with the College of Physicians and Surgeons have been dismissed.

After consulting with lawyers, the college dismissed the complaints against Dr. Jennifer Russell in August, said retiring registrar Dr. Ed Schollenberg.

He said as a medical officer of health, Russell has immunity granted by the Public Health Act.

"So consequently, we couldn't take any further action on that matter," said Schollenberg.

He said some decisions made during a state of emergency, such as during a pandemic, have a further level of protection.

Schollenberg said three of the complaints were about masks and whether they should or shouldn't be mandatory, and one was about Russell's handling of the mystery brain disease investigation.

Dr. Jennifer Russell said in an interview she is not sure of the nature of the complaints, but she was told they were dismissed.

"I trust the process of the college, regardless of the type of complaint and who the complaint was about, whether it's about myself or any of my clinical colleagues," she said.

Russell said she sees reports about all complaints to the college, with anonymous summaries about the complaints and the outcomes. She said from what she sees, the process is fair.

The Public Health Act has a section on immunity and it says, "no action or other proceeding for damages or otherwise shall be instituted" against any officer of health, inspector, minister, or any employee of the minister.

The immunity extends to "any act done in good faith in the execution or intended execution of any duty or power under this Act or for any alleged neglect or default in the execution in good faith."

The section does not specify what exactly constitutes an "action or other proceeding."

Schollenberg said the college got hundreds of complaints over the course of the pandemic, but these four were the only ones submitted officially in writing.

Complainant 'not letting it go'

Last spring, Nova Scotia resident Steve Ellis filed a complaint with the college against Russell for how she handled the investigation of a mystery neurological syndrome.

A year after the province announced it was investigating the mystery illness, a provincial oversight committee found 41 of the 48 suspected patients had "potential alternative diagnoses." The committee said there is no such mystery illness and there are other explanations for the patients' neurological deterioration.

Roger Ellis, the father of Steve Ellis, was at first identified as one of the 48 confirmed cases of the mystery syndrome.

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In his complaint, Ellis alleged Russell didn't communicate in a transparent manner, misled his father as a patient, withheld information that his father had a right to obtain, and provided inaccurate information to families in a private meeting initiated by her office and then-Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

Ellis said he was told in August his complaint won't be considered. He said he has requested a review of that decision.

"I'm not letting it go," he said in an interview.

Ellis said even though the oversight committee found that his father's illness had an alternative diagnosis, they still don't have that diagnosis. His father's illness is still a mystery.

"That's still where we stand like unfortunately. In that regard nothing has changed," he said.

Ellis said if his complaint won't be heard by the college, he can explore legal options.

"But of course that is quite an undertaking. That would be quite an uphill battle."