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Dr. Heather Morrison has not shied away from the glaring spotlight she has been thrust into for most of an extremely difficult 2020.
That does not mean Prince Edward Island’s chief public health officer has been soaking up all the attention with great glee. Far from it.
Morrison says she, like her counterparts across the country, is reluctant to be placed on such a public stage day after day, week after week, month after month.
“We are in our roles because we are there to try and protect the public,’’ Morrison told The Guardian, during a lengthy telephone interview earlier this month.
“We are just doing our job. We are trying to do our job with the best information that we have at the time. And we are trying to make the right decisions for the right reasons every day.’’
Morrison’s lead role in P.E.I. of monitoring, managing and responding to the global pandemic every day for almost a full year has made her the clear choice for The Guardian’s Newsmaker of the Year, said managing editor Jocelyne Lloyd.
“The decision was made unanimously and in a split second,” said Lloyd.
“Dr. Heather Morrison has been the voice and face of calm, kindness and reason, emanating from Islanders’ TVs, computer screens and, yes, newspaper pages. We are all trying to heed her message of patience and caring for our fellow citizens as we navigated this unusual year.”
Last year, likely only a small minority of Islanders could ring off the name of their province’s chief public health officer. Today, Morrison is a household name.
She has given at least 110 briefings so far in 2020 since she first started regularly updating and informing her fellow residents on all aspects of COVID-19, including protocols and restrictions aimed at best minimizing the presence of the deadly virus in Prince Edward Island.
She has always spoken to Islanders in a calm, friendly and reasoned tone which, in turn, has seen the large majority buy into her direction.
Morrison says she has great gratitude for Islanders so diligently following her public health measures to protect themselves, friends, family members and total strangers.
The outcome has been the envy of many across Canada. P.E.I. has the fewest cases of COVID-19 per hundred thousand out of all 10 provinces.
Back in April or May, Morrison thought P.E.I. would certainly have tallied more cases by the end of the year.
As of Dec. 30, there have been fewer than 100 cases in the province. She also anticipated hospitalizations and even deaths, both of which have so far been dodged.
“I am so relieved that we haven’t,’’ she says.
Morrison declined to comment when asked to share her thoughts on outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s questionable handling of the pandemic in a country that has had over 330,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
Rather, she remarked on the ongoing disturbing number of daily cases in the United States, as well as many parts of Canada and numerous places around the world.
“When I see the cases going on elsewhere, it just reconfirms to me why we need to maintain some of the measures we have in place,’’ says Morrison.
“There is hope,’’ she adds, “with the vaccine arriving as well.’’
Morrison credits the province’s much lauded success in dealing with the pandemic to quick, decisive action aimed at limiting how much COVID-19 can come into the province and when it does get in, using strong measures to curb its spread.
“I think we acted quickly and always with the intention of trying to protect Islanders,’’ she says.
For that, many Islanders have made a point of thanking Morrison, who has simply been overwhelmed by the strong public backing.
“I have had so much kindness extended to me and the family – and I think that has been a wonderful support,’’ she says.
One tearful motorist stopped in the street, rolled down the window and told Morrison she was “just so happy’’ to thank her for looking after Islanders so well.
Others have extended similar gratitude in letters and emails.
“And I think those are the moments that remind me – that bring me face to face with – why we are doing this: trying to keep everyone safe,’’ she says.
Some may be quite surprised to learn that the outwardly calm and collected chief public health officer actually has a good number of butterflies fluttering around inside when she sits in front of the camera to deliver a briefing, particularly when the news is not all that positive.
“I’m always a bit nervous,’’ she says. “(The briefings) are always a bit anxiety-producing for me.’’
Morrison says her greatest cause of stress over the past number of months is handling the responsibility of making big decisions on how to best protect Islanders while feeling pressure from different sectors who find the restrictions difficult.
“It’s been tough for everybody,’’ she says.
“It has been a year that we have seen such kindness and outpouring of support … but it has also been a challenging year because of those unintended impacts.’’
Past Newsmakers of the Year:
2019 – Josh Underhay
2018 – Mark Arendz
2017 – Hannah Bell
2016 – Screencutter
2015 – Mike Duffy
2014 – The ‘year’ 2014 (150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference)
2013 – Senator Mike Duffy
2012 – The Impaired Driver
2011 – Royal visit by Prince William and Kate
2010 – Heather Moyse (Olympic gold medal)
2009 – Baby Lillian
2008 – Lucy Maud Montgomery
2007 – Premier Robert Ghiz
2006 – Premier Pat Binns
2005 – Jared Connaughton and Mark MacDonald, tie
2004 – Brad Richards
2003 – Robert Ghiz
2002 – Lucille Poulin
2001 – Blair Ross, workers’ compensation protest
2000 – Lorie Kane
1999 – Lorie Kane
1998 – Summerside police officer David Griffin
1997 – Confederation Bridge
1996 – Charlottetown Mayor Ian (Tex) MacDonald
1995 – Bombing P.E.I. legislature*
1994 – Provincial government’s 7 ½ per cent public sector wage rollback*
1993 – Premier Catherine Callbeck*
*Editor’s note: In 1993, 1994 and 1995, The Guardian only selected a Newsmaker of the Year. In 1996, to comply with The Canadian Press selection method, The Guardian began selecting both a Newsmaker of the Year and a News Story of the Year.