New Brunswick

Complaint filed against chief medical officer over mask mandate decision

The registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick says the province could be headed for "a mess" with the lifting of COVID-19 mask mandates on Monday, and he blames politics.

Decision is a political one and could cause 'a mess,' head of doctor watchdog says

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, contends decisions, such as lifting masking requirements, are made by politicians, with whom Dr. Jennifer Russell 'cannot openly disagree.' (Graham Thompson/CBC)

The registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick says the province could be headed for "a mess" with the lifting of COVID-19 mask mandates on Monday, and he blames politics.

Dr. Ed Schollenberg made the comments in response to a complaint against Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health.

Jessica Bleasdale of Fredericton wrote to Schollenberg saying Russell has provided no medical evidence or scientific data to support her recommendation to remove masks, particularly in schools.

Bleasdale contends the decision will cause the "reckless endangerment" of children and persons with disabilities, including her two sons, aged 10 and 12, one of whom has disabilities and requires one-on-one close contact assistance, as well as seniors and vulnerable populations, and cause "undue harm to women who are most often in caregiving positions as teachers, nurses, and mothers tending to sick children."

This goes against the primary objective of all doctors to do no harm and to prevent disease whenever possible, she argued in her email.

It is, "at best an error of judgment and at worst complete negligence," she alleged.

Schollenberg replied Thursday, saying: "In the end these decisions are made by politicians, with whom [Russell] cannot openly disagree with.

"That said, we do risk a mess if we follow other provinces in just starting to party."

Jessica Bleasdale, pictured with her husband Chad, centre, is worried the removal of masking requirements indoors will put their sons River (left), 12, and Rainn, 10, at greater risk for COVID-19. (Submitted by Jessica Bleasdale )

Bleasdale says she was "shocked."

"To find out that Dr. Russell is unable to argue back with politicians making the decisions is completely unacceptable when we are being told that it is Public Health making the decisions."

She pointed to a number of social media posts by Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

"I continue to be unwilling to go against the recommendations of Public Health," Cardy has posted on Twitter in response to calls to maintain masking in schools.

"There. Is. No. Political. Pressure," he has written.

Russell could not be reached Thursday for comment. She is attending a medical conference and is unavailable, said Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.

"Russell has yet to receive any correspondence related to this kind of complaint," he added.

Premier Blaine Higgs dismissed Schollenberg's allegations.

"There is no political influence in this whatsoever," he told reporters Thursday. "That is a completely false statement."

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell could not be reached for comment. (CBC)

Schollenberg stands by his comments.

"I am aware of at least three chief medical officers of health [in three provinces] that have been fired because they disagreed with their bosses," he said, citing New Brunswick's Dr. Eilish Cleary, who said she was fired in 2015, as an example.

"So it's a very vulnerable position, and you can sort of see that when there's a tension."

Asked whether he believes what Russell recommends to government matters, Schollenberg replied, "Of course."

But he noted her job is to make recommendations, it's government that decides what to do.

"You don't make public policy on the basis of, 'I'm tired of what we're doing,' which is what I've heard from some politicians — 'I'm tired of it, we have to move on.'"

Schollenberg said he believes there are "a lot of people" who would like masking in public spaces to continue for "a while," himself included.

"I'm still very bothered that we cannot budge the last 20 per cent of the unvaccinated, and we haven't figured out a way to do that."

Vaccination rates remained unchanged Thursday, the COVID-19 dashboard shows. A total of 50.5 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their COVID-19 vaccine booster dose, 87.3 per cent have received two vaccine doses, and 92.9 per cent have received one dose.

"It's gotten worse, and they will continue to be a problem forever, really, because the bug's still going to be around and people who aren't vaccinated are going to be spreading it," said Schollenberg.

Masks will no longer be required in public spaces as of Monday at 12:01 a.m. when the emergency order ends and all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. (CBC)

Having said that, he suggested filing a complaint against Russell with the college isn't the right mechanism.

"People complained before about government policies at the beginning of this, at the end of this and in the middle. You know, we're not the way to do that. If you have a problem with a government policy, you deal with the government."

He also noted there's no liability for any actions taken on the basis of the emergency order. "So she would be immune to lawsuit or, I think, even a complaint," he told CBC News.

When Bleasdale subsequently asked Schollenberg to clarify whether he would file her complaint, he replied: "It is a bit complicated legally. … That said, it might be best to avoid such speculation and just start this as a complaint.

"We send it to the doctor who has to respond. Any response is forwarded back to you. We often then get expert opinion. And eventually, try and sort the thing out, to provide you a response."

Bleasdale said she hopes her complaint will at least provoke a release of information, "as to what scientific data could possibly exist that contradicts children's health medical experts across the country.

"What scientific data exists that contradicts even Canada's own public health officer, Dr. [Theresa] Tam, who says masks are necessary at this time?"

Bleasdale noted the Canadian Pediatric Society and a Children's Health Coalition made up of some of Ontario's top hospitals have issued statements calling on governments to not remove mask protections while vaccination rates of children are low, booster rates are low, and transmission rates are high.

"The science from this past [two] years has more than shown that COVID-19 is not like influenza. This coronavirus is an airborne virus that harms the brain, heart, circulatory system, liver, pancreas, and kidneys, as well as the lungs."

Bleasdale is particularly worried about recent reports on long COVID and the impact on the brain, given her son's neurodevelopmental disability.

"I can't already get him the help that he needs in the school and health-care system. What is that going to look like if he gets sick and has even further issues?

"And what's that going to look like when I'm fighting for the limited resources that we have, when all these other people are now going to be experiencing long COVID symptoms by just letting COVID run rampant?"

There have been 12,889 cases reported at schools since the beginning of the school year — more than 10,400 of them in the past month, the Department of Education's COVID-19 dashboard, which has been discontinued, shows.

Bleasdale contends masks are the simplest and most cost-effective way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

The Department of Health spokesperson told CBC the decision to drop masks, including in schools, was based on the COVID-19 winter plan and "moving through the levels."

"This was based on several factors, including modelling information, hospital capacity, vaccination levels including boosters (now over 75 per cent of the population 50 and older has received a booster dose),"  Macfarlane wrote in an emailed statement.

"Measures and restrictions put in place, including moving to Level 3 to manage the Omicron peak, has enabled us to navigate this phase of the pandemic and most New Brunswickers have done their part."

Public Health continues to encourage mask use based on personal risk assessment and choice, said Macfarlane, and schools will continue to ensure they maintain a supportive environment for everyone, including for students and staff who wish to continue wearing a mask.

With files from Shane Magee