New Brunswick's top doctor, Jennifer Russell, on temporary leave

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, expects to be back at work in November. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)
Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, expects to be back at work in November. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)

New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health is on temporary leave.

Dr. Jennifer Russell says she's "dealing with a recently diagnosed medical issue."

"I am doing well but I currently require some treatment and there is recuperation involved," she said in an emailed statement issued through the Department of Health on Wednesday.

Russell was the face of the government's response to COVID-19 for more than two years.

Her dealings with the media have been sporadic in recent months. The last time she spoke to CBC about COVID was Sept. 7, and prior to that, Aug. 9.

Dr. Yves Léger, the province's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, who has filled in for Russell on and off in recent months while maintaining his title, is now serving as acting chief medical officer health, department spokesperson Adam Bowie confirmed.

Although the department does not typically comment on "human resources matters," Russell asked that the department share her statement in response to an inquiry from CBC News about her absence, Bowie said.

"I look forward to returning to work and expect to be back in November," said Russell.

She thanked Léger and the medical officers of health for their support while she's away.

"I also want to thank those who have reached out and wished me well," she said.

This isn't the first time Russell has publicly commented about time away from the office.

In June, in response to rumours and speculative posts on social media about a recent absence from work, she told CBC News she hadn't left her position over stress of managing the pandemic.

After two busy, challenging years, she decided to take a much-needed vacation, she said.

Russell acknowledged at the time there were "lots of rumours about what led to that decision and what exactly [she] was doing while [she] was off."

She confirmed she had sold her house in Fredericton while she was off, but said she simply decided to "downsize a bit early."

She had also hit a deer with her car and required physio, she said.

Russell faced criticisms of her decision to step away from her post as she did, but maintained it was the right move. It was good to "disconnect and decompress," she said. She felt "recharged."

4 official complaints dismissed

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick recently dismissed four official complaints that had been filed against Russell.

Three of the complaints were about whether masks should be mandatory, and the other was about Russell's handling of the mystery brain disease investigation.

After consulting with lawyers, the college concluded Russell, as a medical officer of health, has immunity granted by the Public Health Act.

Some decisions made during a state of emergency, such as during a pandemic, have a further level of protection, the college said.

Russell is also named in a complaint filed with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission by a Fredericton mother over the lifting of COVID-19 mask and isolation requirements in schools.

Jessica Bleasdale filed the complaint against Russell, Premier Blaine Higgs, then-Health minister Dorothy Shephard and Education Minister Dominic Cardy in March on behalf of her son River, 12, who has neurodevelopmental and gastrointestinal disabilities.

She argued the province's inclusive education policy stipulates accommodations should be made to ensure all children can participate in the classroom, and River cannot safely participate without the protection of universal masking and a policy requiring COVID-positive people to stay home.

In a response filed with the commission in April, the government denies discrimination toward River and contends the complaint should be dismissed as being without merit.

No decision has been made.