Haldimand-Norfolk health board reconsidering controversial choice for top doc

·5 min read

***CORRECTION: This story has been updated from an earlier version which erroneously stated that Dr. Matt Strauss made public statements “celebrating business owners who disobey public health measures”. In fact, the man Strauss called a “hero” in a social media post was a businessman who claimed he would keep his gym open under the Reopening Ontario Act guidelines that make exceptions for people with disabilities who need physical therapy.***

The doctor may be out.

Some members of Haldimand-Norfolk’s board of health are reconsidering their decision to appoint Dr. Matt Strauss as the region’s acting medical officer of health.

Since Strauss’ hiring was announced on Friday, Coun. Tom Masschaele said he and other board members were beset by “countless emails and phone calls” from residents concerned about the Kingston-based doctor’s public statements minimizing the seriousness of COVID-19.

In one tweet from last August, referring to the importance of a healthy diet in preventing disease, Strauss said, “I would sooner give my children COVID-19 than a McDonald’s happy meal.”

Strauss, an assistant professor of medicine at Queen’s University, has also advocated for controlled spread of the virus to reach herd immunity and argued that lockdowns “have not been proven to save lives in the long run and therefore violations of human rights cannot be justified in their pursuit.”

The board of health, which consists of Norfolk County council, approved Strauss’ appointment on July 22. On Tuesday, four board members said they regret choosing Strauss to lead Haldimand-Norfolk through the pandemic’s fourth wave.

“I find the callous nature of the comments infuriating, and I think they’re a bit reckless,” said Coun. Amy Martin. “They’re a danger to our community.”

Martin said the fact Strauss continued tweeting after he was hired — including his now-infamous “Live free or die” tweet of Aug. 29 — is “not reflective of the type of leadership that I think our communities are in need of.”

Coun. Kim Huffman said health unit staff did not bring up Strauss’ more controversial views during the July 22 in camera session that lasted less than 40 minutes, or during either meeting of the hiring committee.

“There was a mention of his publishing in journals, but that was it,” she said.

Huffman said the many residents she has heard from since news of Strauss’ appointment broke “are aghast that this is who we would be putting in charge of our public health.”

She publicly called for his appointment to be revoked.

But Mayor Kristal Chopp defended the decision, saying board members should have been well aware of Strauss’ skepticism of lockdowns and other public health measures as expressed on social media and in various newspaper columns.

“I want it for the record, the Twitter account was discussed,” said Chopp. “It’s insulting to staff to suggest due diligence was not done. Council members are also responsible for doing some research.”

Coun. Linda Vandendriessche, who now opposes Strauss’ appointment, professed ignorance of his views because she is not on Twitter.

“I don’t think, as a councillor, it is my job to vet these people. I thought that was being done,” Vandendriessche said.

“I would think that you would know how to Google,” Chopp shot back.

Chopp told The Spectator Strauss’ approach to public health might resonate with the sizeable portion of the population in Haldimand-Norfolk that shares his skepticism and has yet to be vaccinated.

“As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, trust in public health is essential, and I think trust in public health here was completely eroded,” she said.

“So perhaps that is just the guy to reinstill some trust from people locally (by saying), ‘OK, I don’t support (vaccine) passports, I don’t support some of these lockdown measures, but as a doctor I do believe in vaccinations.’ That might just be the thing with some people, because clearly the other direction wasn’t working.”

The board of health unanimously approved Strauss’ hiring from a small pool of candidates, Chopp added.

“(Strauss) has already been out to see some of the farmers and he’s expressed a real desire to work with them and understand the challenges facing Haldimand-Norfolk. I think that was what set him apart,” she said.

Coun. Chris Van Paassen criticized his fellow board members for moving to dismiss Strauss because of backlash from “keyboard warriors” who “take quotes out of context and try to make something out of this great hyperbole of nothingness.”

“I’ve had enough of this character-bashing and innuendo,” Van Paassen said. “I still think that we’ve made the right selection, the right person. I look forward to him beginning work here and looking after the health of our citizens.”

For his part, Strauss sent board members a statement pledging to follow all public health rules set out by the province and decrying the “politicization of my appointment and ad hominem attacks against me” that followed.

In his statement, Strauss committed to continuing the vaccine rollout and approaching vaccine-hesitant residents using “nuanced, personalized and noncoercive conversations.”

He said while he sometimes uses “sarcasm or eye-catching analogies” to criticize government policies in his writings and online, he would refrain from doing so in his official capacity as medical officer of health.

“If I have a disagreement with government policy in my new role, I expect that it will be professionally discussed between colleagues,” Strauss said. “Of course, in those areas where provincial officials choose to exercise their authority, I will respect their privilege to do so.”

Strauss dismissed criticism of his skepticism toward stay-at-home orders and other government interventions.

“My life’s work has been to save lives,” he said. “Any suggestion that I am ‘anti-science’ or opposed to ‘life-saving measures’ is untrue and inappropriate.”

The board of health adjourned Tuesday’s meeting with plans to seek independent legal advice before meeting again.

As Strauss has a signed contract in hand with a start date of Sept. 14, it is unclear what the board’s options are if members want to go in a new direction.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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