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Quebec public health director Horacio Arruda resigns, admitting 'erosion' of public opinion

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Dr. Horacio Arruda, who has been Quebec's public health chief for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, stepped down Monday while admitting a recent "erosion" in public trust.

He offered his resignation to Premier François Legault and Legault accepted, according to a spokesperson from the premier's office.

Legault's office is making no other comment for the moment but he will hold a press conference Tuesday.

In Arruda's letter of resignation, obtained by CTV News, he cited recent criticisms of his work without specifying exactly what he was referring to.

"The recent remarks made on the credibility of our opinions and on our scientific rigour undoubtedly cause a certain erosion in the adhesion of the population," he wrote, meaning people's willingness to follow public health rules.

"In this context, I consider it appropriate to offer you the possibility of replacing me before the end of my term in office," he wrote.

Arruda, who is in his early 60s, has been Quebec's director of public health for 12 years.

"Do not see this gesture as an abandonment on my part, but rather the offer of an opportunity for you to reassess the situation, after several waves [of the pandemic] and in a context in constant evolution," he wrote.

He added that if Legault wished him to continue in the job, he would do so, but said he was ready to "serve the citizens" of the province in a different capacity.

Arruda has faced criticism on several fronts recently as Quebec yet again became the country's COVID-19 epicentre, as it has repeatedly been since the pandemic's first wave in spring 2020.

Each wave has brought different critiques of the way the province handled the virus, but recently, Arruda faced a barrage of complaints over comments he made publicly, including repeatedly saying that N-95 masks weren't better than procedural masks and therefore didn't need to be provided to health-care workers or to teachers.

Quebec's worker safety board reversed that decision, at least for health workers, mandating that they be provided with N-95s.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Arruda had spoken against mandating mask use at all, saying masks could give a false sense of security. 

Later he recommended against installing air purifiers in schools, with his team of public health experts even suggesting the machines would spread the virus rather than reduce it. A similar pattern played out with rapid tests, with millions sitting unused in Quebec last winter.

He also faced much criticism over his poor English skills and public speaking ability, leading the government to hire a "communications coach" for him for several months.

Among the most serious accusations levelled at Arruda, however, was his advice in Quebec's disastrous first wave, which killed at least 4,000 people, most of them elderly, in the province's long-term care homes.

The rampant infections at the homes were later found to have been caused largely by the unchecked movement of staff between different homes. In a coroner's inquest that has been ongoing for months, Arruda testified and admitted he didn't recommend that staff stop moving between care homes.

RECENT COLUMNS CALLED FOR ARRUDA TO BE FIRED

While these earlier criticisms were often aimed at a group of provincial leaders -- Arruda and Legault normally appeared together in press conferences, alongside Health Minister Christian Dubé -- Arruda has been singled out more in recent weeks, especially in scathing attacks in French-language media.

Several well-known columnists called for him to step down or to be fired.

In one very widely read column in La Presse in late December, opinion writer Patrick Lagacé listed about a dozen of his questionable comments or decisions over the past two years, saying others had compiled much more comprehensive lists

"Is there a pilot in the plane?" Lagacé asked.

"I got tomatoes thrown at me in May 2020 when I raised questions -- doubts -- about Dr. Horacio Arruda's scientific qualities," he wrote.

Over the ensuing months, "Horacio Arruda has said so many unfounded things in public that I wonder what the hell he is saying in private," he wrote.

He argued that the situation is no longer acceptable to Quebecers as they go into the pandemic's third year and are, as of this month, forced into yet another mandatory curfew, even after reaching high vaccine coverage.

He finished, however, by laying the ultimate blame on Legault, suggesting Legault likes to have some scientific backing "as decoration."

"François Legault is the head of government. He's the boss... It is he who chooses who advises him," Lagacé wrote.

"If François Legault does not realize that Horacio Arruda is sowing consternation among the ranks of Quebec scientists, it is worrying."

Legault's government, in its first term after the premier's new CAQ party came to power in 2018, is heading into an election this fall. 

Why is Arruda resigning now? Political analyst Tom Mulcair weighs in on CJAD 800 Radio

 

'DECISIONS ARE MADE BY THE PREMIER': OPPOSITION

As the news broke on Monday evening, Legault's three main political opponents were forgiving of Arruda while they condemned the premier.

"[Legault] will most likely seek to make him shoulder the blame of the current situation," wrote Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade on Twitter.

"However, Dr. Arruda's departure will not solve anything. Decisions are made by the premier and should be based on science and not polls and gut feelings." 

She also thanked Arruda for serving the province for his long tenure, and especially for the last two years, when he "put aside his life and his family for all of us."

Parti Québécois leader Pierre St-Paul Plamondon struck a similar note, thanking Arruda for his work and slamming Legault.

"Dr. Arruda sacrificed himself for the bad decisions of the government, but the structural problem remains: in the crisis unit there is only one scientist for 15 specialists in politics and comms," he wrote, serving Legault's "political decisions."

He wrote that "Dr. Arruda was placed in front of an unprecedented health crisis and in a crisis unit where his independence and his room for maneuver were far from obvious."

The third major opposition party, Quebec Solidaire, repeated that Legault was in charge.

"Thank you to Dr. Horacio Arruda for his long years of dedication to our public health system, too long neglected and underfunded," wrote party co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in his own tweet.

"Throughout this pandemic, he served Quebec with sincerity. It was the CAQ government that made the decisions."

'PERHAPS BEYOND CAPACITY'

One Quebec expert agreed that Arruda faced a tough task and said he may have simply reached his limit. 

"I believe that Dr. Arruda realized that he and his team of public health advisers had to deal with a deluge of new scientific data on a consistent basis, at a pace that was perhaps beyond capacity," said Dr. Donald Vinh, a Montreal infectious diseases specialist.

"He and his advisers were expected to constantly interpret and integrate data from a broad scope of different sciences (including those that were beyond their regular knowledge) to make some challenging decisions... which can be challenging under normal circumstances but daunting under those of the pandemic."

Arruda was generally well-liked at the beginning of the pandemic, with the public making affectionate memes of his extravagant facial expressions and media writing profiles about his rise to prominence from a blue-collar background.

His parents were Portuguese immigrants, with Arruda born and raised in a town on the North Shore, not far from Montreal. 

Not long into the pandemic, however, Arruda began to face more criticism for his unpolished manner. In May 2020, as Quebec contended with thousands of deaths, Arruda tearfully apologized after appearing in a fundraising rap video making light of confinement.

In his letter of resignation, Arruda wrote that he had always given his job his "best," and said that his COVID-19 recommendations were also "the best possible" he was able to make at the time.

"Many expert opinions as well as the best recognized public health standards have been taken into account in our recommendations," he wrote, noting it was a "context of uncertainty."

"It is important to consider each of these recommendations in the context of the knowledge of the moment and of the era."

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