Newsmaker of the Year: Dr. Janice Fitzgerald

·7 min read

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald paused a moment to maintain her poise.

It was mid-November, and a small cluster of COVID-19 cases had broken out in the community of Grand Bank on the Burin Peninsula. About half a dozen seniors were among those infected, always a major concern. And Public Health was already dealing with a cluster in Deer Lake on the west coast.

Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, had been asked by a reporter whether area residents should take any extra precautions with respect to gatherings.

“As I’ve been saying for quite some time now, we should all be avoiding gatherings,” she said. “This is not normal times. This is not 2019. This is 2020, and 2020 is quite different from last year.”

It was a rare display of frustration for Fitzgerald, who had essentially come out of the woodwork to lead the province’s strategy against the world’s worst pandemic in 100 years. She had only been appointed to the post the previous September, with no idea she would be facing such a public health nightmare.

“We need to make sure that we are reducing our contacts as much as possible everywhere in this province, not just on the Burin Peninsula,” Fitzgerald continued at that November video briefing. “That’s where the story is today. Tomorrow it could be on the Northern Peninsula and the next day it could be on the Port au Port Peninsula. This needs to be a stark reminder to everyone in the province that COVID can raise its head at any time and in any place in our province.”

Long before a second wave of COVID-19 swept across Canada this fall, Fitzgerald was imposing some of the strictest health orders in the country.

She stuck to her guns when two constitutional challenges were brought against the province’s non-resident travel ban that came into effect on May 4. One of them has been decided in favour of the government, but is being appealed.

And when Newfoundland and Labrador’s caseload was at its lowest near the end of the summer, she imposed a mandatory mask measure.

“What happens in the schools reflects what happens in the community, so we felt that if we made the community as safe as we possibly could, we’d keep schools as safe as we possibly could,” she says.

Yet public compliance appears to be high, and her local approval rating has soared above that of fellow health officers across the country, with one poll placing her at almost 90 per cent.

Perhaps it’s her combination of grit and compassion that endeared her to the public, or it could be when tears or laughter occasionally bubbled to the surface during regular live updates on the COVID-19 pandemic.

But under her watch, with the backing of the premier, health minister and numerous other colleagues, Newfoundland and Labrador has served as a model for Canada and even the world as a deadly new coronavirus continues to surge in other parts of the country.

All about balance

Fitzgerald, who sat down for a year-end interview at The Telegram’s offices earlier this month, says everything about her job is about balancing risk.

“In public health, the dilemma is always about the balance between protecting the public, protecting the individual and trying to maintain the health and well-being of both,” she said. “And that can be a difficult thing to achieve.”

When rotational workers had finally had enough of endless two-week isolation periods every time they came home, she finally implemented a seven-day policy where they could get some limited freedoms if a COVID-19 test came out negative. When cases were hovering around zero in early summer, she allowed personal visitations again in long-term care facilities — with precautions.

It also helped that, unlike a couple of provinces, her rapport with premiers Dwight Ball and then Andrew Furey, along with Health Minister Dr. John Haggie, has been solid.

“Both Premier Ball and Premier Furey have been quite supportive of Public Health,” she said. “We have been included in those major decisions when we have felt that we needed to have something brought forward, that something needed to be done. They were always quite willing to listen.

“The minister has worked quite well with the Public Health team,” she added. “I think we sang from the same songbook.”

Fitzgerald says she gets well wishes from all corners. People stop her on the street to thank her for her work. But like any public figure, she gets a few personal jabs as well.

“I don’t take that too seriously, to be honest,” she says. “When people are saying negative things about you as a person, it often has more to do with them than it does with you.”

She’s more worried about the message getting through.

“What upsets me the most is when people try to question the science, or try to say that the science is invalid or that there’s some motive behind the science. The science is the science. It is what it is.”

She admits, however, that one personal attack actually did sting.

“There was a point in early summer where there was a fairly prominent person in a community that suggested that I had used my position of leadership to try to gain favour for one of my children in her class,” she says.

It wasn’t true, she says, and bringing her family into it was over the line.

“That was very upsetting. I think anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t do that.”

There were a number of low points along the way — the first case, the four deaths, the Caul’s Funeral Home cluster in April that resulted in 170 cases and at least one death — but Fitzgerald doesn’t hesitate when asked what moment made her happiest of all.

It was the arrival of the first vaccine in early December.

“We were all on Cloud 9,” she said. “We knew that this was going to mean a whole lot of work and that we weren’t going to get a whole lot of time off at Christmas, but we were happy, happy, happy to have that problem.”

As for her future, Fitzgerald says she has no intention to run for the hills — unless that means running for the hills of Costa Rica once this is all over.

“I love the job I’m doing right now. I love the team that I’m working with. I think we have a great group of people around us. … I think we could make such strides in public health and population health, Health NL policy, and I look forward to being a part of that.”

Here are some things you may or may not have known about Fitzgerald.

• She was born in “the other” Trinity near Gambo — not literally, because “everyone in Trinity had to go to Gander to be born” — but grew up mostly in Grand Falls-Windsor where she enjoyed winter and summer weather ideal for outdoor activities.

• She was inspired to study medicine by an aunt, who entered the discipline a few years ahead of her.

• She received a bachelor of science degree in biology in 1990 before graduating from Memorial University’s medical school in 1994. She completed her residency through Dalhousie University.

• She spent 20 years as a family physician before going into public health. “I decided I wanted to try to improve the health of the population, and public health was the best way to do that.”

• She doesn’t write her own speaking notes — they are prepared by staff in the department. “If you can find someone who can find your speaking voice, hang on to them.”

• She lives in Mount Pearl with her husband, their three college-age children and two dogs. The family has a cabin where they enjoy hiking, watching movies and reading.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram