Liberal health critic Rob McKee, the leader of the Official Opposition, alleges the acting chief medical officer of health and Public Health are "being muzzled" on the triple threat respiratory virus season that risks overwhelming New Brunswick hospitals.
He made the allegation to reporters outside the legislature Thursday after he and Green Party health critic Megan Mitton demanded to know during question period why Dr. Yves Léger had not been made available for public briefings "over the last several weeks."
"I believe that they're being muzzled by the Department of Health and by the premier to not come out and talk, you know, if they're going to say something that the government doesn't agree with. And maybe that's what's going on," McKee said.
"And I feel it's problematic, that we should be hearing directly from Public Health and not from a staffer or someone that works in the communications department."
Heath Minister Bruce Fitch told the legislature he doesn't "control the agenda or media availability" of Léger, but expected he would speak publicly "in the not-too-distant future."
Pressed later by reporters about the fact he could recommend Léger hold a news conference, given the clear public appetite for more information about COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, Fitch replied, "I have suggested it strongly."
'Media availability' at 1 p.m.
A few hours later, the Department of Health posted a media advisory that Léger will hold a "media availability" Friday at 1 p.m. via Zoom. It's unclear from the advisory whether the media availability will be public, but they typically are not.
CBC requested a comment from Premier Blaine Higgs's office to the allegation of muzzling. Instead, the senior director of communications for the Executive Council Office sent a link to the media advisory.
Léger has been filling in as chief medical officer of health for Dr. Jennifer Russell since late September, when she confirmed to CBC she was on temporary leave, dealing with a recently diagnosed medical issue.
CBC has not been able to get an interview with him about the weekly COVIDWatch reports since Oct. 11. He was on vacation for two of the weeks, in meetings another week, and simply "not available" the other two, according to a Department of Health spokesperson.
People have "many questions" about COVID-19, including new variants, preparations if there's a next wave coming, vaccines and boosters, McKee told the legislature.
There's also a sharp rise in a particularly virulent strain of the flu and in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, especially in young children, after a lull in pandemic protective measures, which have doctors worried.
But there's been "radio silence" from Public Health, said McKee.
"We always said on this side of the House to follow the recommendations [of Public Health], but right now it is the communications director of the Department of Health that gives us the information."
'Missing in action'
Green Party health critic Megan Mitton said she has seen the federal chief public health officer, as well as the chief medical officers from P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. all on the news this week, "speaking to their populations.
"But here in New Brunswick, Public Health is missing in action," said Mitton, the MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar.
"Will the minister of Health commit to having Public Health brief New Brunswickers on the status of RSV, the flu and COVID in the province within the next week?"
Fitch assured the opposition and the public that Public Health and the office of the chief medical officer "are present, they're engaged," said Fitch.
He pointed to the seven-page COVIDWatch report, released Tuesday.
"And media, they write questions to us — significant number of questions — and we do the research. We do the research, make sure it's accurate to send it back."
Experts should be guiding us
"Those are our statistics. They're not public updates," countered McKee.
"They need to be giving the public timely information, not [just] after journalists keep on demanding for information … so the public can make informed decisions whether they want to protect themselves and to protect others."
McKee also questioned the "independence and transparency" of the information being provided to the media through the communications department, suggesting possible political interference.
"It is experts that should be guiding us. But where are they?"
What is Public Health's plan to protect the most vulnerable and ensure our hospitals aren't completely overwhelmed by the triple threat of RSV, COVID and flu this winter? - Megan Mitton, Green Party health critic
The public needs to hear directly from Public Health, agreed Mitton.
"What are Public Health projections for hospitalizations from these viruses this winter? And what is Public Health's plan to protect the most vulnerable and ensure our hospitals aren't completely overwhelmed by the triple threat of RSV, COVID and flu this winter?
"We need more than a report. We need a press conference."
Fitch replied that if McKee has any concern about political interference, "he should expand on that because "we've always followed the data, we've always followed the recommendation."
"I'm sure that Dr. Léger will be out in the media in the not-too-distant future to alleviate some of the concerns of the members across the way."
Russell has said she expects to be back on the job in November.
Her dealings with the media had become sporadic prior to her leave. The last time she spoke to CBC about COVID was Sept. 7, and prior to that, Aug. 9.
Léger, who is the province's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, had filled in for Russell on and off during that period, while maintaining his title.