New Acting Medical Officer of Health wants to rebuild trust, tackle vaccine hesitancy one case at a time

New Acting Medical Officer of Health wants to  rebuild trust, tackle vaccine hesitancy one case at a time

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

HALDIMAND — Haldimand Norfolk’s new Acting Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Matt Strauss, had his first media briefing this week, addressing his hiring and the lingering pockets of vaccine hesitancy in the region.

“Everyone at the health unit has been extremely welcoming and supportive. I’ve benefitted so much from their expertise and professionalism over the past two weeks. It has been a whirlwind,” said Strauss, whose first day was September 14, 2021. “I’m trying to learn my way around the community and all the terrific work the health unit is doing.”

Strauss appeared at a Norfolk County Council meeting last Monday, where he confronted some of the concerns over his hiring: “I do think it is very unfortunate that some of my comments have been misconstrued and for a portrait of myself to emerge that I’m anti-mask, ant-vaccine, or any of these things…. I’m pretty careful in terms of what I’ve actually said … (and) I support our public health nurses and all of the work that they do.”

In regard to the tweets that got him in hot water to begin with, during which he shared anti-lockdown sentiments, Strauss said that as an academic physician and freelance journalist, he sometimes felt the “obligation to make provocative statements on contentious issues,” adding that the same approach would be inappropriate in his new role: “Eye-catching analogies may have been part of my social media presence in the past; they no longer need to be. In the past, if I have criticized the Provincial measures, I didn’t have a lot of other avenues to raise those criticisms.”

Despite the 12-17 crowd having the lowest vaccine adoption rate (62% locally), Strauss feels it is more pressing to address the 40-60 population range who remain unvaccinated, going as far as calling it his chief priority.

“I made an unfortunate, and grim prediction, that if there is excess mortality from COVID-19 in the months to come I suspect that excess mortality will be observed in that cohort of unvaccinated 40–60-year-olds,” said Strauss. “I feel pretty grimly confident on that point.”

Strauss said COVID Vaccine Team Lead Sarah Page has been sending him some of the more “interesting” anti-vaccine messages left on the health unit’s COVID hotline: “I’ve had the opportunity to call and reach out to some of those folks, just trying to learn where folks are at in terms of vaccine hesitancy at this point.”

Strauss’ thoughts on vaccine hesitancy are influenced by the teachings of one of his professors, Maya Goldenberg at the University of Guelph, who authored ‘Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and The War on Science’.

“She largely sees it as a crisis of trust in public institutions, and not a matter of knowledge translation. It’s not a case of folks not having access to facts from quality medical institutions, it’s often the case that folks don’t trust the facts,” explained Strauss. “How do we build trust in those places?”

Based on the conversations he’s had, Strauss said that thesis largely checks out with what he’s hearing from residents: “It also checks out with my clinical experience. The way I build trust with people is through contextualized, personalized conversations…. I have found it helpful to give honest reflections on a person’s personal situation.”

When asked if he supports vaccines in the school-age crowd, Strauss said yes, with reservations.

“In the interest of building trust and transparency, I’m reluctant to give a blanket medical statement to an individual who is 14, but I can say that the preponderance of data I’ve seen suggests a 14-year-old should get the vaccine.”

As of September 27, Haldimand Norfolk had seen a total of 2,910 COVID cases since the start of the pandemic last March, with 20 new cases reported over the previous seven-days for a daily average of 2.14 new cases a day, down from 3.6 last week. There were 26 active cases locally at that time. Over 138,000 vaccine doses have been administered locally, with 77.4% of the population now fully immunized, and 83.1% having received one dose, placing Haldimand Norfolk 2.8% behind the current provincial average.

Upcoming vaccine clinics are scheduled for the Cortland Fire Hall on October 4, the Hagersville Fire Hall on October 13, the Vittoria Community Hall on Tuesdays throughout October, and at the HNHU’s Dunnville office on Thursdays.