Quebec premier names new top health official after sudden resignation
Dr. Luc Boileau replaces Dr. Horacio Arruda as public health director
Quebec's interim public health director will be Dr. Luc Boileau, the current head of the province's health-care research institute, the INESSS, Premier François Legault announced Tuesday.
Monday, Legault accepted the resignation of Dr. Horacio Arruda, who had served as public health director for nearly 12 years and had become a household name during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legault thanked Arruda for his hard work and said he'd grown close to him through 22 months of regular meetings and public news conferences.
"Being in front of the media every day and explaining these decisions is not easy for anyone," Legault said. "I think there are advantages to having someone new after all those months, to take on those responsibilities.
Legault said Arruda will be taking a couple of weeks to rest before returning to help out in another role that has yet to be decided on.
At Tuesday's news conference, Boileau thanked Legault and Health Minister Christian Dubé for entrusting him with such an important role.
"I'll try to be at the height of their expectations," he said. Boileau said he has a lot of admiration for Arruda.
Boileau has held several high-profile roles in the Quebec health network. He was head of the province's public health institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) from 2008 to 2015, and before that, of the Montérégie regional health board.
Arruda submitted his letter of resignation on Monday as the Omicron wave continued to overwhelm hospitals across the province, forcing the health-care network to postpone surgeries and other medical services.
In his letter, Arruda wrote that should the premier wish, he would continue to serve. Legault accepted his resignation.
Arruda had been criticized for supporting Legault's wish in early December to allow up indoor gatherings of up to 20 people over the holidays, as well as for offering little evidence backing the second use of an overnight curfew, announced before New Year's Eve.
At the end of December, Arruda also came under fire for saying N95 masks were not as efficient as surgical masks if worn or adjusted improperly.
Separation of science and politics
Daniel Béland, a professor of political science at McGill University, said he wasn't surprised to see Arruda step down, in light of that criticism.
But Béland cautioned against placing the blame for the pandemic squarely at Arruda's feet. He said that the job of the director of public health is to provide information to government officials, who, based on that evidence, ultimately form policy.
"The responsibility for the management of the crisis lies with the premier. And this is something that he will have to live with until the election, the provincial elections in October," he said.
Béland noted, however, that the position of director of public health is not entirely divorced from politics.
The director of public health is automatically an assistant deputy health minister, tied to the government institutionally.
"That creates a kind of ambiguous position where you're independent, but they're at the same time you're not totally independent," he said.
Béland pointed back to March 2020, when Arruda was rapidly becoming the face of the pandemic response in Quebec.
"He developed a fan base and in terms of communications, he was the one communicating the first public health measures and guidelines to the population, and he became some form of media czar," he said.
Béland said the premier then appeared to "push Arruda aside," to reclaim the public image, despite being a more controversial figure.
"[Legault needs] to reassure the public that the government is still listening to scientists, and that the government understands the frustrations of the public," he said.
In a tweet thanking Arruda for his service, the Quebec College of Physicians urged the government to grant his successor "the greatest independence of opinion to ensure the support of the population."
Calls for more independence
Quebec's three main opposition parties and the College of Physicians are calling for the next public health director to be more independent from the Quebec government.
The opposition has said Arruda, who usually appeared in public alongside Dubé and Legault and whose advice to the government was often delivered orally behind closed doors, was too close to political decision-makers.
In response, Boileau said he will approach the role of interim public health director the same way he approached his role as head of the INSPQ and the INESSS.
"In that role, we asked institutes that I represented to be independent and I will continue to work in this manner," he said.
"I presume that [Quebec's public health director] must be independent and in the work that I will do, it will be independent."
Opposition says Arruda was scapegoat
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade tweeted on Monday her thanks to Arruda, saying he put aside "his life and his family for all of us" during the pandemic.
"The departure of Dr. Arruda will not solve anything. Decisions are made by [Legault] and should be based on science and not polls and gut feelings," Anglade wrote.
During recent news conferences, Legault has been routinely asked if he still has faith in Arruda and the premier has defended him.
Another opposition party, Québec Solidaire, has also shown its support for the former public health director.
Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tweeted his thanks to Arruda for his dedication to the province's "long neglected and underfunded" health-care system.
"Throughout this pandemic, he served Quebec with sincerity. It was the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) government that made the decisions," Nadeau-Dubois wrote.
"Arruda sacrificed himself for the bad decisions of the government," agreed Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, the leader of the Parti Québécois, on Twitter.
'Most difficult weekend' coming up
Although the number of new cases and hospitalizations continue on an upward trend, Boileau said he anticipates the numbers will soon begin levelling off.
"Have we reached the peak right now? Well, we cannot confirm this," he said. "We will have to wait a few more days."
Dubé said those few extra days could prove critical for the province's health network as hospitalizations near a point of no return.
"The weekend coming up is going to be our most difficult weekend," he said, pointing to the critical staffing shortage in Quebec hospitals.
Legault estimated that 1,000 more health-care workers and 1,500 CHSLD staff will be needed in the coming weeks to keep the system afloat.
He said the unvaccinated make up 10 per cent of the eligible population, yet account for 50 per cent of ICU admissions.
That's why, Legault said, the government will be imposing a "health contribution" on Quebecers who refuse to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks.
With files from Radio-Canada and The Canadian Press