New Brunswick

'The cause of our lifetime': Inside New Brunswick's COVID-19 war room

For the officials overseeing the provincial government's COVID-19 war room, fighting the pandemic is an all-consuming job: an exhausting, stressful but exhilarating experience.

Taking a deeper look at the daily lives of government officials fighting a global pandemic

Premier Blaine Higgs and Cheryl Hansen, who oversees the provincial civil service, speak on opposite sides of the room to observe physical distancing. (Louis Leger/ premier's chief of staff)

As he arrives each morning at the Department of Health, deputy minister Gérald Richard gets his temperature checked, usually around 6 a.m. He hasn't had a day off since March 11.

Cheryl Hansen calls her mother every morning before sunrise as she drives from Mactaquac to Fredericton, where she oversees the provincial civil service from Chancery Place.

Dr. Jennifer Russell arrives at work by 7:30 a.m. More than 12 hours later she tries to have a cup of tea and a hot bath to unwind after another day on the front line.

For the officials overseeing the provincial government's COVID-19 war room, fighting the pandemic is an all-consuming job: an exhausting, stressful but exhilarating experience.

'The mission is saving lives'

They say the greatest challenge of their careers is also bringing out the best in the people they work with.

"For us, the mission is saving lives, as much as the front-line health-care workers," says Hansen, who, as clerk of the executive council, is the province's top civil servant. 

Public servants staffing New Brunswick's health emergency operations centre. (Photo: David Coon/Green Party Leader)

"The more we can support, get things up, gets things structured, that's our singular mission, and that gets you out of bed every day and keeps you working hard."

Higgs's chief of staff, Louis Léger, says the Progressive Conservative minority government has had to put aside all its other plans.

"The only agenda right now is to manage this," he says. "There's no other agenda."

A typical day in a pandemic 

Non-partisan civil servants like Hansen and political staffers like Léger rarely speak publicly. But the premier's office gave them permission after a request from CBC News to describe a typical day during the pandemic.

It's a dizzying amount of work, and it means 12-or-more-hour days, seven days a week, for those in the "war room."

"Going home and just having a regular supper with the family is, unbelievably, a very special experience now," says Hansen, who was appointed to the top role only two months ago.

The staff at Public Health "are giving what I would call a Herculean effort," Russell says. "Everybody is lifting above their weight. They're going above and beyond the call of duty.

"They are working seven days a week in rotations, and those days are not normal days. They are 12 or 14 or 16-hour days." 

Léger is remaining in Fredericton rather than commuting home to Kent County as he normally does on weekends.

"I can't put myself in a position where I would possibly infect others. … If I get sick, then Cheryl Hansen will get sick or the premier will get sick." 

The command post is actually in three locations: Chancery Place, where the premier's office and the executive council office are located; HSBC Place, home of the Department of Health, and the Victoria Health Centre, where the Emergency Measures Organization has offices.

'Guess the temperature' 

Like everyone else entering the three buildings, Richard's morning temperature check is a requirement. Anyone with a temperature isn't allowed in. 

Higgs says EMO staff have started "a little contest down there called 'guess the temperature.'" He came within 0.4 degrees of guessing correctly when he visited Monday.

Richard's daily routine begins with a 7:30 a.m. meeting of the top officials in his department, followed by one with the new COVID-19 task force at 8 a.m.

During the pandemic, Gérald Richard, deputy minister of health, starts his day at 7:30 a.m., meeting with the top officials in his department. (Photo: Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Russell attends both meetings.

"I definitely hit the ground running every morning," she says.

The deputy minister's day continues with a briefing for the emergency operations centre staff on their tasks for the day at 9 a.m.

The centre is staffed by public servants in the Health Department who, sitting a safe distance from each other, field different calls from across the system and send out word of new protocols for issues ranging from elective surgeries to face masks. 

They normally work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a designated list of tasks.

"They go through the whole thing to make sure everything was resolved, and if not they have to stay until it's resolved," Richard says.

It's an environment that is actually quite good in terms of working together for one cause, and it's the cause of our lifetime, really. ​​- Louis Léger, premier's chief of staff

After that briefing, he calls the CEOs of the two regional health authorities to let them know what the task force has decided.

He also speaks to Medavie Health Services NB CEO Richard Losier and to Eric Beaulieu, his counterpart at the Department of Social Development.

Nursing homes and special care homes are normally regulated by Social Development, but are now under the authority of the four-person task force.

At 12:30 p.m. the same group that met at 7:30 a.m. huddles again.

By afternoon Richard usually has some time for non-pandemic tasks, such as reviewing the departmental budget or signing contracts. 

And later in the day there are often cabinet meetings to support, conference calls with his counterparts in other provinces, or meetings of the all-party committee Higgs set up that includes leaders of the Liberal, Green and People's Alliance parties. 

He says the enthusiasm from his departmental staff motivates him to keep coming to work.

"That keeps me from going crazy, because they want to be here and I want to support them." 

Looking at post-pandemic economic recovery

Down the street at Chancery Place, Hansen oversees a similar, non-stop sequence of meetings.

She designated the deputy minister of public safety, Mike Comeau, as the lead official on the COVID-19 response and he has moved from his office in Marysville Place to Chancery.

They've put working groups in place for different aspects of the pandemic. 

One focuses on "business continuity," ensuring other government functions, like the recent mail-out of cheques for low-income seniors, continue. Another is now planning for post-pandemic economic recovery.

Higgs says he'd obviously prefer not to be dealing with a pandemic but he's in his element thanks to his career at Irving Oil.

"I came from an operational background," he says. "So for me being focused on operations, and the details behind that, is second nature. I just inherently ask questions about the details. A lot of people don't expect that from someone in this role, but that's how I'm wired."

The nature of working at Chancery Place has changed because of the virus.

"The floor where we're spending most of our time has a few core people, spaced out so that we're not putting each other at risk but close enough to call out to each other when that becomes desirable," Comeau said.

There's a lot of intensity to every conversation. It has the kind of seriousness with it that I associate with flood situations.​​​​​- Mike Comeau, deputy minister of public safety

In meeting rooms, distances are marked on the floor in case officials are tired and forget how far to stay away from each other. 

Protocols are constantly updated. A new one at Chancery Place last week says only one person can ride an elevator at a time.

On the political side, a phone line has been put in place for all 47 members of the legislature and the province's 10 federal MPs, regardless of party affiliation. 

MLAs are often the first to hear from New Brunswickers about problems with how a new, hastily designed program is working, Léger said.

The phone line "has helped a lot in managing the flow of information in, and managing the flow of information out.

"It's an environment that is actually quite good in terms of working together for one cause, and it's the cause of our lifetime, really." 

Pandemic energy similar in flooding season 

Comeau compares the pace and nervous energy to spring flooding season. Flood response is overseen by EMO, which is part of his department.

"There's a lot of intensity to every conversation," he said. "It has the kind of seriousness with it that I associate with flood situations."

That experience has also taught him and his staff how to avoid getting too stressed out. 

"We do have some experience and we've taken some advice over the years on how to keep perspective, remain calm and take care of oneself during those times." 

Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart, Mike Comeau, deputy minister of public safety, and Hansen taking part in a meeting to tackle COVID-19 in New Brunswick. (Photo: Louis Leger/ premier's chief of staff)

That means spelling each other off if anyone is tired or visibly close to burning out and needs a day off.

Russell has advised New Brunswickers to look after themselves and not allow stress levels to get too high, advice she tries to heed herself after she gets home.

"When time allows I do go for a walk. At the end of the day I do try to get in a cup of tea and a hot bath. I try to spend time doing a little unwinding with a bit of music." 

Dr. Jennifer Russell and the premier speak at daily news conferences in Fredericton throughout the work week. (Submitted by the Government of New Brunswick)

Léger says he's avoiding watching too much news when he returns to his apartment at night.

"You've got to take a break from it because it's overwhelming." 

Russell herself, however, finds herself still immersed in COVID-19 at home. 

"Reading around all the latest things that are coming out on a daily basis, I don't have a problem with. It doesn't scare me in the sense that, for me, it's all information that helps me do my job better."

Higgs gets home to Quispamsis once or twice a week, driving straight to his house without stops and observing physical distancing guidelines.

He and his wife Marcia had an Easter rendezvous with one of their daughters, who lives nearby, but it was at a safe distance on the sidewalk.

"It was a fully isolated weekend," Higgs said, "You've got to do what you ask others to do."

To relax, the premier also spent part of the weekend on a springtime ritual, removing the battery from his motorcycle to charge it and checking the tires. 

The trips home also give him a chance to eat better than he does during the week in Fredericton.

"Let's just say that it's good that fast food restaurants are still open," he says.

The premier sees his role as keeping tabs on what urgent issues need high-level decisions, including changes to the emergency order regulating behaviour.

Higgs says he's been relying heavily on fast food while dealing with a major pandemic. (Photo: Louis Leger/ premier's chief of staff)

Any changes go first to the all-party cabinet committee. Decisions requiring full cabinet approval go there next.

"My role is then communicating that [at daily briefings] along with managing the expectations of the public," he says.

The premier says he's excited to see officials breaking down traditional barriers between departments and making decisions quickly.

"That's what you do in management in a crisis," he says.

It's also something he's long wanted government to do.

Improving public service after the pandemic 

Hansen says officials have "kind of blown up the typical hierarchy," she said. "We had to become a lot more agile and solutions-focused than ever before" to cope with the requirement for physical distancing.

Some court proceedings are being done by phone or videoconference. With the sign-on of the New Brunswick Medical Society, doctors are meeting patients over the phone.

Hansen says government officials have learned new ways of operating that could last beyond the distancing requirements. (Photo: Louis Leger/ premier's chief of staff)

"This was something we wanted for a long time, but in the space of about a week, we were able to work with the NBMS and make sure we had protocols in place to start tele-care," Richard said. 

Hansen says one legacy of COVID-19, whenever the pandemic does end, is that government officials have learned new ways of operating that could last beyond the distancing requirements.

"We do not want to come up the same way as we went down, with the same type of offering in the same kind of way," she said. 

"We're really looking here around how do we move out of this event with new and improved public services."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.