Canada's chief medical officers plan some downtime after months of hard work

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's chief medical officers were hailed as the nation's rising stars. Their regular public briefings made them familiar faces and household names to thousands of Canadians, and their scientific expertise helped shape government policies that gradually flattened the domestic curve over the past four months.

But how have Canada's top doctors coped during a time of unprecedented stress, and can they start to relax now that numbers are on the decline? Several weigh in with their thoughts:

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— Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada

The federal chief public health officer said she and her team have been working flat out since the pandemic shifted into high gear in mid-March, sometimes putting in work days of as long as 20 hours. Tam said she has not always been good at following her own regular advice to balance public health restrictions with mental health self-care, but said she hopes to address that during some vacation time later this summer. A break is also necessary to help health officials brace for the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the fall, she added.

"It is a time to make sure we recharge everything so that we're ready for any resurgences," Tam said at a news conference. "That is very important, because I think most of the public health workers, and anyone in the health system ... have been working extremely hard."

Part of that effort involves scaling back Tam's once daily news briefings to roughly biweekly affairs.

— Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec

In the province hit hardest by COVID-19, Arruda has peppered his regular briefings with calls for residents to concentrate on activities to help them unwind from the stress of living through a pandemic. The province's director of national public health even cited his own fondness for baking as an example. But when pressed about his pending vacation plans, Arruda offered few specifics other than the fact that he was decompressing on command.

"I've been asked by my minister to take vacation. The prime minister, too," he said. "I will be in Quebec ... sleeping well if possible, listening to music."

Arruda said biking and sports also figure into his staycation plans, adding he would be wearing a face mask through most of these leisure activities.

— Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto

The last few months have been a demanding time for Toronto's chief medical officer of health, who spent eight weeks living away from her family in order to limit their potential exposure to COVID-19. She said that phase was defined by almost non-stop work punctuated with Facetime calls to catch up, adding such an arrangement was not conducive to a strong work-life balance. Now that she's back home again, however, de Villa said striking that equilibrium has gotten easier.

"I can't just do work all the time, because they're there," she said of her husband and teenage sons. "It gives me a break. I get the chance to recharge from them, I do get energy from them."

De Villa said she too intends to take some time off at some point this summer. In the meantime, she tries to vary her work routine by getting up and moving around her home and neighbourhood as much as possible to stave off fatigue.

— Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta

Alberta's chief medical health officer is already enjoying some downtime. The doctor who made sartorial waves by wearing a dress featuring the periodic table of elements early in the pandemic has remained a regular fixture at the province's COVID-19 updates. At one of those briefings last week, she said that COVID-19 will be with us for some time.

"We cannot wait until the pandemic is over to take a break or recharge," she said as she announced plans for a week's vacation. "Self-care is important and summer is a wonderful but brief time in Alberta. We all need to take care of our physical and mental health for the weeks and months to come."

Hinshaw said she planned to spend her break with her family.

"I sometimes fear (they) will soon no longer remember my name," she quipped.

— Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, also scheduled time off for the week of Canada Day. A written statement from the province's health department says Roussin plans to take more time off later in the summer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 8, 2020.

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