Alberta names new chief medical officer

By Alejandro Melgar and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who has been the face of Alberta’s COVID-19 pandemic response for the past two years, has officially been replaced.

The province announced Monday that Dr. Mark Joffe, who currently works with Alberta Health Services (AHS) as a senior executive, will be the new chief medical officer.

A news release from AHS says Joffe’s appointment is effective immediately and will continue until the health minister rescinds the appointment.

Health Minister Jason Copping thanked Hinshaw for her contributions while noting Joffe’s experience.

“Dr. Joffe has dedicated himself to improving the health of Albertans throughout his career. He brings this wealth of experience and knowledge to the role of chief medical officer of health,” Copping said in a statement.

“I also wish to thank Dr. Deena Hinshaw for her service and dedication to Albertans through the past several years.”

This comes after Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announced she would overhaul AHS by the end of the year following her UCP leadership win. She also said she would replace Hinshaw.

Smith has consistently blamed both Hinshaw and AHS for failing to deliver what she says was proper advice and care for Albertans as the hospital system almost crumbled in the multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I appreciate the work that Dr. Deena Hinshaw has done, but I think that we are in a new phase where we are now talking about treating coronavirus as endemic, as we do with influenza. So I will be developing a new team of public health advisers,” Smith said in her first conference as premier.

The premier also said she would not do joint press conferences with Hinshaw, and on Oct. 22 told reporters, “A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health.”

She has promised to fire the AHS board and revamp the entire system with an eye to decentralizing it by mid-January.

Hinshaw became a familiar figure during the COVID-19 pandemic as she delivered regular updates online and through tweets on the spread of the virus and the measures the province was taking.

She urged Albertans to stay safe, and treat each other with respect and reminded them often: `”We’re all in this together.”

But as COVID-19 waves continued to crash through Alberta in 2020 and 2021, pushing hospitals to the brink and forcing the province to put in restriction limits, open and close businesses and impose vaccine passports, Albertans turned on each other and on Hinshaw.

She was criticized for accepting an advisory role with the province’s United Conservative government rather than exercising her full powers to combat the emergency.

A low point came in the summer of 2021, when the province cancelled almost all health restrictions before any other province, promised the “best summer ever” and scoffed at suggestions COVID-19 could return and overwhelm the health system.

Hinshaw has said that the “Open for Summer” plan in 2021 led to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the province.

Then-premier Jason Kenney said the plan wasn’t the best one, which led the province to reassess and bring back restrictions and introduce highly divisive vaccine passports. This came out as cases were cratering the system and compelling change.

Both Kenney and Hinshaw admitted they were mistaken and said it was due to flawed projections.

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Hinshaw, once adored, was mocked and criticized. She was lampooned in a stage production of Alberta’s pandemic response, titled “Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer: the Musical.”

Protesters chanted “Lock her up!” at an anti-restriction rally. The government spent money on her security due to numerous threats.

In August, there was public outrage when it was revealed Hinshaw had been paid a $228,000 bonus on top of her regular $363,000 salary in 2021.

Hinshaw has been out of the public eye for months. At a news conference earlier Monday, Smith said there would soon be a new chief medical health officer but did not mention Hinshaw.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Joffe needs to speak to Albertans immediately to address concerns over rising rates of respiratory illnesses among children and jammed hospitals and emergency wards.

“Danielle Smith must also commit to listening to sound scientific and medical advice, not conspiracy theorists such as Paul Alexander,” said Shepherd.

Smith said earlier this month that her medical advisory team had reached out to Alexander and she wanted to hear from him. Alexander, a medical adviser to former U.S. president Donald Trump, has a high profile in the pandemic protest movement on both sides of the border and is famous for calling the COVID-19 vaccine a “bioweapon.”

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