Quebec top doctor's endearing style no match for daily grind of COVID-19 pandemic

MONTREAL — Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's top public health official when COVID-19 hit, employed a down-home style that endeared him to Quebecers in the pandemic's early days, but he was ground down by 22 months at the helm.

Arruda, 61, was a reassuring voice amid uncertainty in March 2020 as the first wave engulfed the province. But over time, his advice was increasingly questioned, with critics in recent weeks calling for him to be replaced before his sudden resignation on Monday.

Public health director since 2012, Arruda quickly became a strong presence in the province's COVID-19 fight and an important player in the lives of locked-down Quebecers, appearing alongside Premier François Legault and the health minister for daily briefings.

As cases and deaths mounted and Quebecers found themselves isolated, Arruda memorably told a news conference that people should do something to take their minds off the pandemic, like reading or listening to music. For his part, he said he planned to spend part of the weekend baking Portuguese tarts, a recipe he shared with the population.

"I don't want to distress people. I don't want to make people anxious," Arruda said at the time. "Don't be anxious. If you're anxious, call somebody, try to have an activity that you love. Everybody is different. It could be yoga, it could be music, it could be dancing … Just be innovative."

Arruda found his face plastered on items from T-shirts to loaves of bread, and Quebecers sent him handcrafted gifts and cards. A Montreal art studio even created a small statue of him using 3D printing.

But over time, Arruda attracted criticism for shifting messaging on the pandemic and for measures imposed by the Legault government, such as the unpopular nightly curfew, which returned Dec. 31 for the second consecutive year. Detractors pointed to changing stances on booster doses, rapid tests and masking, and they questioned why N95 masks and air purifiers weren't made available in schools.

Those criticisms only grew louder as the Omicron-driven fifth wave of COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm the province's hospitals.

"Recent comments about the credibility of our opinions and our scientific rigour are undoubtedly causing a certain erosion of public support," Arruda wrote in a letter dated Monday offering his resignation, which was accepted by the premier. 

On Tuesday, Legault thanked Arruda, saying the doctor had given his all during the past 22 months. Legault told a news conference that Arruda would stay on as an assistant deputy minister after taking a few weeks off.

"I considered the advantages and disadvantages of accepting the proposal," Legault said when asked if he had considered not accepting Arruda's resignation. "After 22 months, I think that there are some advantages to having a new person in charge."

Born and raised on Montreal's north shore, Arruda is a specialist in community health who has focused on epidemiology and the prevention and control of infectious diseases. He played a major role in the aftermath of the 2013 Lac-Megantic, Que., rail disaster, where Dr. Réjean Hébert — then health minister — worked closely with him.

Hébert, now a professor of health policy analysis at Université de Montréal, said the pandemic put Arruda in an unenviable position, having to manage a crisis where the science was changing and there wasn't a consensus among experts.

"In public health, you not only base your decision on scientific evidence, but you also have to be practical," Hébert said in explaining some of the shifting decisions.

"The decision has changed, it does not mean the first decision wasn't good enough … it means the decision changed according to the evolution of the crisis and the scientific evidence," Hébert added. "He was continuously in this kind of a paradigm, and it was not very comfortable for someone like him, but he managed that quite well in my mind."

Hébert said it's clear that Arruda had concluded it was time for a different voice to try to rally the public.

"I can imagine the fatigue associated with dealing with this for two years was a very important part of the decision," Hébert said, noting that during the first wave, Arruda was away from his family for months. "I can imagine it was very tough for him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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