The doctor is in after all.
Dr. Matt Strauss will start his term as acting medical officer in Haldimand-Norfolk on Tuesday after a tumultuous few days that saw some members of the local board of health initially withdraw their support for the noted lockdown skeptic.
Whatever Strauss’s detractors heard behind closed doors Monday night during a nearly two-hour session with an unnamed lawyer changed their minds, for the board subsequently voted 8-1 to confirm the appointment.
Norfolk County councillor Kim Huffman, who last Tuesday publicly revoked her support for Strauss after outcry over some of his statements — such as calling into question public health measures like vaccine passports and masking, or when he tweeted that he would sooner give his children COVID-19 than fast food — was among those who changed her tune.
“At this point in time I will support the appointment,” Huffman said, adding she was guided by the legal advice and was “being very careful in terms of not being a hindrance to the board of health, and Haldimand and Norfolk counties.”
Haldimand Mayor Ken Hewitt said his council had “significant concerns … from a financial perspective” should the doctor’s appointment be revoked.
“An offer has been made,” Hewitt said. “There’s been a lot of comments that could be misconstrued and could lead into several millions of dollars in lawsuits. We share that concern and that weighs heavily on where we’re at today.”
Hewitt is not a voting member of the board but was on hand at Monday’s special meeting to share his council’s support for Strauss.
Hewitt acknowledged that Strauss has made “edgy” comments on social media regarding COVID-19, but noted that the board also had “lively conversations” about how former medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai managed the pandemic, including his Section 22 orders regarding how to safely quarantine migrant farm workers — rules Hewitt called “overkill” and harmful to the local economy.
Coun. Amy Martin was the sole dissenting vote. At last week’s board of health meeting, she called Strauss’s public comments about the pandemic “callous” and “a danger to our community,” and said his “Live free or die” tweet of Aug. 29 showed a lack of leadership.
The board had previously voted down a motion to have Strauss speak at Monday’s meeting, but Coun. Mike Columbus referenced a letter the doctor sent to the board in which he offered what Columbus called “a reasonable explanation of his social media posts.”
“I wish we would have had that explanation from the get-go, because that letter that we received today certainly clarified a lot of the reason why he was making a comment of that nature,” Columbus said.
Strauss’s letter was not made public before the meeting and it is unclear which of Strauss’s tweets were referenced.
Columbus added that Strauss “does believe in COVID-19 vaccinations, contrary to some emails that I did receive.”
“I don’t feel like wasting any taxpayer money on a liability lawsuit of something of that nature,” Columbus said. “He has a signed agreement at this point, and I hope to see him ready for work tomorrow.”
Before casting her vote, Huffman referred to “misinformation” among the general public about what Strauss would have the power to do in his new role.
“I received quite a few emails (from residents) that said, ‘We don’t want any more masks. We don’t any more social distancing. We don’t want any more lockdowns. We want Dr. Strauss,’” Huffman said.
“I just want it to be clear to the public that that’s not the case. Those are provincially mandated laws … and those things will continue to apply in Haldimand-Norfolk.”
Councillors Linda Vandendriessche and Tom Masschaele also reversed their objections to Strauss’s hire, with Vandendriessche maintaining that his vetting process was flawed.
“I still have concerns, but I will be in support of doing what we have to do,” she said.
Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp, who chairs the board of health, said she looked forward to Strauss’s arrival to tackle COVID-19 and other public health issues, such as the opioid crisis.
“Public health is never meant to be political,” Chopp said after the vote. “I want really to commend the majority of the members here today for basing your decision on facts.”
Chopp said it was important not to squash opposing views on lockdowns and other public health measures, noting she herself has publicly taken issue with the province’s COVID-19 response.
“That’s how we keep the conversation going,” she said. “I don’t think that somebody with a difference of opinion should be in any way silenced.”
Strauss is expected to appear before Tuesday’s Norfolk County council meeting to publicly introduce himself.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator