From Saint-Armand to Montreal public health

By Gordon Lambie

Anyone following the public health situation in the Montreal area has probably heard from Dr. David Kaiser through his role as the physician responsible for environmental health with the public health department.
“That covers a broad swath of stuff from transportation and housing to food security and all kinds of environmental risks like noise and air pollution,” Kaiser told The Record, explaining that in what he called “normal times” he was regularly called upon to interact with the city, various government ministries, and the media on a whole host of public health issues
Although settled and at home on the island of Montreal for more than half of his life at this point, Kaiser traces his roots can back to a farm in Saint-Armand and school days at Butler Elementary and Massey-Vanier.
“I grew up on a farm, came to the city for cegep, and have been here ever since,” he said, explaining that his work with public health began after the end of his medical residency in 2014 “I think that I got the best of both worlds.”
As one might expect, the spring and summer of 2020 have not been totally normal times.
“I’ve been working, like pretty much everyone else in the public health department, on COVID for the last four months,” he said noting that, among many other tasks, this has meant occasionally stepping in for Montreal’s Public Health Director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, to speak on behalf of the department when she is unavailable. “It just so happens that the weeks when I have been replacing her have been particularly busy,” he said with a laugh.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought public health officials around the world into an almost unprecedented spotlight, Kaiser said that he feels that the attention is a strong reminder to be humble.
“I think that if we don’t have a strong link with the public then it is much, much harder to do our work,” he said, describing communication as one of the most important functions of his job. “There is a big responsibility that comes with having the ear of the entire population. We really have to weigh our recommendations and our communications carefully.”
The doctor said that he recognizes people can feel stressed or frustrated when recommendations seem to change from one week to the next, and described maintaining public trust as a high priority.
“We almost need to put a clause before everything we say in these times that is, based on what we know at the moment, here is what we can tell you,” Kaiser said, explaining that even though there are people working every day to try to stay on top of the most recent information on the virus, even public health officials do not have crystal balls. “It’s a constant work in progress.”
Part of that work, he continued, is walking the line between making the importance of an issue clear and overdoing it.
“If you invoke climate change after every major storm, people become deaf to it,” Kaiser offered as an example, “and without the support of the public, our work is essentially meaningless.”
On the other side of the coin, the doctor said that the pandemic response has offered an unusual opportunity to see the community respond directly to information presented.
“When you’re talking about air pollution or climate change, you don’t necessarily see people changing their behaviours the next day,” he said, pointing out that when Montrealers who had been to bars since the start of the month were asked to get themselves tested, ‘people changing their behaviours the next day’ was exactly what could be seen. “I can only say thanks to the population of Montreal for that,” he said. “It shows that people are listening.”
Kaiser spread that gratitude more broadly as well, adding that he believes the vast majority of people in the province are listening to public health directives aimed at helping people stay healthy.
“That is really heartening.”
Looking to his roots, Kaiser said that since the start of the pandemic, his family has only made the trip out to the Townships once.
“That’s quite unusual, it’s been a real change in our patterns,” he said. “My kids are used to going out to see their grandparents more regularly.
The doctor emphasized that he does not consider the strangeness of not going out to the country as often as usual nearly as disruptive as the changes elderly people have faced over the last several months of confinement, but he also said that people should not dismiss the importance of normal social contact and connection as they strive to follow guidelines and keep one another safe.
“The objective is always to maintain social connections to as close to normal as we can,” he said, stressing the fact that while it is important to manage risk, there are always factors that cannot be controlled.
“We need to live our lives, we need to re-establish and reinforce those social connections,” he said, encouraging people to find a balancing point between taking necessary and recommended precautions and living in fear.
“You never know if, two days after a visit, you are going to start coughing and have a fever,” Kaiser acknowledged, “but if you do, help us do our jobs; go get tested and isolate yourself, or it can really paralyse society.”

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