By Kaitlyn Clark
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND — Opinion has been strongly split following the appointment of Dr. Matt Strauss as the new acting medical officer of health for Haldimand and Norfolk due to social media posts by Strauss that are against lockdowns.
The Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health unanimously approved the appointment on July 22, 2021. An agreement was then signed, and the health unit announced the hiring on social media Friday, September 2. Comments immediately began flooding in from residents, both encouraged by and concerned with Strauss’ social media presence. Shortly after, the Ontario Liberals called for the health minister to block his appointment, but ministerial approval is only required to make Strauss the permanent, rather than ‘acting’, medical officer of health. Liberal health critic John Fraser says Strauss cannot be allowed to continue in the role, describing the doctor as opposing “life-saving public health measures.”
The Twitter posts drawing this reaction include messages such as “Live free or die”, posted on August 29, 2021, and “I would sooner give my children COVID-19 than a McDonald’s happy meal”, posted on August 3, 2020. Strauss additionally shared numerous posts and wrote opinion articles against lockdowns and called businesses who ignored restrictions “heroes.”
Strauss wrote a public statement in response to the backlash, which can be read here.
While public reaction has been mixed, Kristal Chopp, Norfolk Mayor and Chair of the Board of Health, released a personal statement in support of Strauss. She said that the Board of Health was fully aware of “Dr. Strauss’ colourful Twitter feed and his journalism stories” and that any concerns were “discussed at length.”
However, four Norfolk councillors, who are members of the board, disagreed at a meeting on September 7, asserting that while there was mention of a social media presence and journalism, no specific information was provided on the messaging Strauss shared.
Councillor Amy Martin said that while differing opinions and discussion is healthy, “there has to be a better way to do it that won’t erode the public’s trust in our health unit and won’t undermine the efforts that our staff have undertaken.”
“(These) are not the comments I think that someone in a leadership position … should be expressing, and I find the callous nature of the comments infuriating and a bit reckless,” Martin added.
Councillor Linda Vandendriessche said it is “very disturbing” to say the board was fully aware of the comments as they were not given specific examples: “I’m not a human resources member, so I did not find it necessary to vet this individual. I thought that was being done…. I am very, very upset.”
Councillor Tom Masschaele concurred, stating that he should have asked more questions at the time: “I would be quite willing to reverse my course on this and would take the responsibility for doing so…. The vast majority of emails and phone calls that I know all board members have received are not in favour of this appointment and I think, in the end, democracy should rule the day.”
Councillor Kim Huffman made similar statements: “I’m fully taking responsibility for making a mistake…. At this point in time, I would like to make it noted publicly that we have the support of three Haldimand County councillors who would like to see this appointment revoked, so at this point in time I am full-heartedly, without any doubts in my mind, revoking my support for Dr. Strauss.”
Chopp however, defended Strauss and the staff’s vetting process throughout the meeting. She said that councillors should not have to be “spoon-fed every topic” that Strauss has written about, and that since staff mentioned he has written controversial articles, councillors should have done their own research. Heidi Van Dyk, Acting General Manager of Health & Social Services at Norfolk, said staff followed the hiring policy “to the letter” in making their assessment of the candidates, which she still stands behind.
“Any good ethical scientist should always be questioning, especially with something as novel as COVID-19,” said Chopp in her statement, noting Strauss’ qualifications, which include being an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Queen’s University and previously an Assistant Clinical Professor at McMaster University, along with having practised as an Intensivist/Internist and Medical Director of Critical Care at Guelph General Hospital.
Chopp said she was “deeply offended” by the response from John Fraser: “To think that our Board of Health or I would put our residents at risk is preposterous and cheap political theatre. Let me make this ‘Kristal Clear’, Dr. Stauss believes in vaccinations, which the last time I checked is the strongest public health measure we have available in our toolbox. Yes, he has held a critical viewpoint on some COVID-19 measures – for the record, so too have I.”
She asked that residents judge Strauss based on his performance in the coming months, concluding, “As our acting medical officer of health, Dr. Strauss won’t be a journalist – he will no longer be putting out attention-grabbing, controversial tweets. He will follow all rules declared by the Province and encourage all members of our community to do the same, not only because legally he is bound by provincial decisions but because Dr. Strauss understands his new mandate and the great responsibility that carries.”
The Board of Health considered two candidates for the position. While not part of the formal decision, the current Interim Medical Officer of Health Dr. Alex Hukowich stated, “I met with the two candidates and my position on both of them was that both of them seemed to be quite reasonable people…. I endorsed either one of them.”
While the Board of Health represents both Haldimand and Norfolk, it is made up solely of Norfolk Council members. On the appointment, Haldimand Mayor Ken Hewitt said Strauss is “certainly quite colourful with respect to some of the posts” and noted that his position on lockdowns is inconsistent with provincial recommendations.
“I think if you have 10 different people you would probably get 10 different answers on what was done (during the pandemic) now having hindsight and history,” said Hewitt. “This being said, I don’t agree with the tweets that were put out. However, I’m not part of the Board of Health. Our position was made to Norfolk and, ultimately, it’s their decision.”
Dr. Strauss’ appointment for acting medical officer of health is set to be effective September 14. For Strauss to become a permanent medical officer of health, he would need to obtain a Master’s in Public Health prior to ministerial approval.
The Board of Health closed their September 7 meeting for a closed session discussion with in-house legal counsel, which was to be followed by a meeting with external legal counsel later this week for further discussion.