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Dr. Jennifer Russell speaks in front of public accounts committee about COVID-19 response


Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, was in front of the public accounts committee Thursday morning answering questions on her response to the pandemic.

Russell announced her resignation from the province’s chief medical officer role last month, and largely hasn’t been made available for media interviews the past several months, despite being known for holding daily, or almost daily, press conferences in 2020 and 2021.

That’s something Liberal MLA Robert McKee addressed at the beginning of committee questions. He asked who Russell answers to within the organizational structure. She identified the deputy minister of health.

McKee asked why public health stopped sharing updates after the mandates were lifted.

“We have to make sure that our response in terms of the media response is appropriate for the level of risk,” she said. “These were triaged and prioritized by public health… there were no questions that weren’t answered, there was no information that wasn’t provided.”

McKee also asked, referring to a slide in a presentation Russell was sharing with MLAs, why she was situated “at the very bottom of the decision-making hierarchy.”

“My involvement and participation in meetings was very high up at the top,” she said. She acknowledged the need to clarify that.

Also in that slideshow presentation, an outline of “Public Health Evidence-Informed Decision Making” – which included four areas of consideration.

“Community and Political Preferences and Actions” was one of them.

But in speaking with reporters after the committee meeting, Russell said she and her team would give recommendations, during which “pros and cons were discussed and then cabinet would make their decision.”

Reporters then asked if cabinet ever made a decision that she didn’t agree with.

“We wouldn't say what our preferred choice was. We would make recommendations with the pros and cons, and that would be a very balanced and thorough discussion about all of the recommendations,” she said.

During committee questions, McKee looked for more specifics on Russell’s role. 

“Were you or weren’t you directly involved in that decision-making process?” McKee asked.

“I would say I was directly involved in that decision-making process… I feel I had ample opportunity to give advice… I was fully participating in those discussions,” she answered.

Later, she said she wasn’t aware if any of her recommendations or decisions were brought to the premier’s office.

McKee also asked why there wasn’t more of a transition period between the daily or weekly sharing of information through media interviews to very little despite “the public asking.”

Russell answered she felt there was a transition period.

“COVID-19 is really something that we feel we want to treat it just like all the other respiratory illnesses… we know that this is the same approach that other provinces are using,” she said. “Trying to make sure we were in line with other provinces… our risk assessment and our triaging meant that that was the direction we were going with.”

Russell mentioned that the many groups and meetings she was involved in, when giving advice and making decisions, would collect information in hours that would normally take years.

“We don’t work in a vacuum,” she said. “We were sharing information knowing lives are at stake.”

Green Party MLA Megan Mitton asked if Russell has the unfettered ability to speak to New Brunswickers without the concern of reprisal.

“Absolutely. Again, as a civil servant, my job is to give advice to the government,” she answered.

She said she felt there was no information she couldn’t share.

Mitton pointed to Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang, who has spoken on issues as recently as last month.

Russell said her colleague Dr. Yves Leger has spoken and held press conferences on similar issues.

“It doesn’t matter who from our team speaks, so long as the message gets out,” she said.

She said she had to take five months off in the last year, recognizing that her public health team stepped up under the leadership of Leger.

“Did government ever not follow your recommendations?” Mitton asked.

“I’m very comfortable with the ability to give my best advice,” Russell answered.

Russell didn’t say if she believed a public inquiry into the pandemic response is necessary, only that that decision should be made after the Auditor General releases his next report, which is expected in December.

After the meeting, McKee said he was disappointed with Russell’s answers.

“I would say that most of the answers were evasive and it was hard to get clear-cut answers from her. And it's disappointing because I know a lot of New Brunswickers have a lot of questions that remain unanswered after today,” he said. 


Russell shared some of the personal challenges she went through during the height of the pandemic, saying she was on a first-name basis with the chief of police in Fredericton.

She said she had to have a security system installed in her home, and that there were negative things said to her children. Russell added there was a lot of negativity about her on social media.

“The pressure of being in the media and having a lot of scrutiny and criticism was also problematic at times because I have a family. And so my children would read these stories. My children would read these comments. My children saw the memes,” she said. 

She shared she went through a divorce and at one point, her children “bubbled” with their father, and that her only time off would be Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, at which time she would catch up on sleep.

“Personally, I would say that it was a challenge,” she said. “I was not used to being in the public eye every single day.”

She said she had to withstand a lot of pressure, having to do around 150 press conferences, but she acknowledged all chief medical officers across the country experienced the same.

Russell also shared she hit a deer in 2022, totalling her car, and only recovered three months ago – and then was diagnosed with colitis, which is why she had to take five months off. 

On Wednesday, the University of New Brunswick announced Russell would begin a new role as the executive director of “a planned institute of population health” this fall. Her last day as chief medical officer of health is Dec. 8. 

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Nick Moore.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page. Top Stories

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