Premier Danielle Smith is replacing Deena Hinshaw as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health ahead of significant changes she says are coming this week to the province’s health care system and its leadership.
The government announced Dr. Hinshaw’s departure late Monday afternoon in a news release and replaced her with Mark Joffe, a senior official with Alberta Health Services, who was appointed on a temporary basis. It’s not clear how long he will remain in the role or when Ms. Smith will announce a permanent replacement.
Dr. Hinshaw was appointed chief medical officer in January, 2019, under the former New Democratic Party government and advised the cabinet of former premier Jason Kenney during the pandemic. Chris Bourdeau, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry, said in a statement that Dr. Hinshaw’s contract was set to expire in January, 2024. He declined to provide details of her severance package as the transition is being finalized.
The doctor was among several high-profile chief medical health officers across the country who earned admiration and accolades for their steady, calm advice at daily news conferences as a novel coronavirus spread around the world and forced the country into lockdown.
But opponents of public-health measures, such as business shutdowns, mask mandates and vaccine passports, attacked Dr. Hinshaw. Ms. Smith singled her out for criticism during her successful campaign to lead the United Conservative Party, blaming Dr. Hinshaw for providing bad advice that led to health restrictions, and promising to replace her if elected. Ms. Smith won the UCP leadership in early October and was sworn in as Premier shortly after.
During a news conference earlier Monday, Ms. Smith refused to answer specific questions about Dr. Hinshaw. She said the province’s chief medical officer would provide guidance about a recent increase in respiratory infections in the coming days but sidestepped questions about who that would be.
“I wouldn’t anticipate that you’re going to see daily press conferences,” said Ms. Smith. “We will make sure that we’re getting information out to parents and to schools and to those who need it, but we’re not going to be treating this the same way that we did it at the beginning of COVID.”
Dr. Joffe is an AHS vice-president and medical director and will continue in those roles as he takes on the role of chief medical officer. He will not be additionally compensated for taking on this position, said the government.
In his AHS position, he oversees the delivery of health care through Cancer Care Alberta, clinical support services and provincial clinics, according to the agency’s website. He has worked for the AHS and Capital Health, the former public-health authority in Edmonton, for more than 25 years.
“I am honoured to be asked to take on the chief medical officer of health role for our province. I have always put the needs of my patients first and foremost throughout my career, which will continue as I take on this new challenge,” said Dr. Joffe in a statement.
Health Minister Jason Copping said, also in a statement, that he looks forward to working with Dr. Joffe, who he said brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the role. The minister also thanked Dr. Hinshaw for her service and dedication to Albertans.
Before becoming chief medical officer, Dr. Hinshaw served as medical officer of health in AHS’s Central health zone for seven years, and as a medical officer of health in the area of public-health surveillance and infrastructure prior. She was also Alberta’s deputy chief medical officer of health from 2017 to 2019.
She enjoyed immense popularity in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, prompting businesses to sell merchandise with her face on it. When she wore a dress featuring the periodic table during one of her daily briefings, the Victoria-based designer reported a spike in sales. As the pandemic wore on, she faced harsh criticism both from opponents of public-health measures and also from people who believed she and the government were not going far enough to respond to the pandemic.
David Shepherd, NDP health critic, said in a statement, “Albertans deserve to hear from Dr. Joffe immediately as respiratory illnesses are spreading rapidly and hospitals are inundated.”
He said the Premier, Health Minister and new chief medical officer must also “agree on the need to promote vaccination and condemn misinformation” about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
On Monday, Ms. Smith also said her government will soon be announcing details on their plan to increase surge capacity in hospitals, as they buckle under tremendous pressure, driven in part by respiratory viruses that are spreading rapidly among school-aged children. She said it is the failure of AHS management that hospitals are ill-equipped to meet demand.
Additionally, details on the doctors advising Ms. Smith are to come this week, she said.
Ms. Smith deflected questions about openly consulting experts who have objected to vaccines, such as former Donald Trump adviser Paul Alexander who described them as “bioweapons.” She said she is not consulting him, but said during a debate ahead of her successful by-election in Brooks-Medicine Hat this month that the group of doctors advising her had “already reached out to Dr. Paul Alexander.”
During her campaign for UCP leadership, Ms. Smith outlined plans to overhaul the structure of AHS. This included a pledge to hire a new chief executive officer and replace the entire board with an interim health commissioner, both of which have yet to take place.
One AHS board member, Deborah Apps, has resigned ahead of the looming firing, saying she could not support the new Premier’s plans to reform the health system and its organizational structure.
Ms. Smith also committed to undertaking a review of hospital bed capacity and is seeking recommendations on how to cut AHS bureaucracy and decentralize control of health care delivery to what she has described as local decision makers.
Mauro Chies is currently serving as the interim president and CEO of AHS.