Dr. Theresa Tam didn’t set out to become Canada’s top doctor, much less a household name. A self-described introvert, she’s previously stated that public health is at its best when it goes unnoticed, able to quietly and effectively keep Canadians safe and healthy. During her 20 years in the field, Dr. Tam has been at the forefront of Canada’s response to H1N1, Ebola and SARS. But this year, as chief public health officer (CPHO), she was thrust into the spotlight like never before.
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Canadians looked to Dr. Tam for guidance. Soon, she appeared on televised public service announcements advocating for frequent handwashing, and her likeness started appearing on T-shirts, murals and several impressive Lego creations. As the pandemic stretches on, her near daily updates provide a sense of stability amid the ever-changing scientific understanding of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Her messages typically follow a standard template: a greeting followed by the latest COVID-19 infection and death rates, and a reminder that to get through the pandemic, we all need to work together.
Throughout 2020, Dr. Tam has led Canada’s response to everything from dangerously low levels of personal protective equipment to devastating outbreaks in long-term care facilities, and more recently, navigating back to school and the second wave. She’s earned praise for being “a rock” and a “calm and steady ship through the pandemic”—a communication style she developed as a pediatric physician, often delivering difficult news to families.
That’s not to say that Dr. Tam’s response to COVID-19 has been perfect. As cases began to rise again in September, public health officials were criticized for issuing conflicting, and at times confusing, guidelines. But while Dr. Tam doesn’t always have the answers we’re looking for, she also doesn’t fan false hopes. “Quite frankly, we’re steering in uncertain waters,” she says. “No one knows exactly what is going to work.”
There’s a saying among public health professionals that Dr. Tam often refers to: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.” In other words, despite her extensive experience, COVID-19, like all pandemics, is impossible to predict. What’s most important, she says, is being adaptive. That was her approach when it came to the hotly debated use of face masks. She initially stated—based on her experience with other respiratory infections—that they were only useful for people who were “actually sick.” However, as evidence on the effectiveness of mask-wearing to curb the spread of COVID-19 mounted, Dr. Tam reversed her message, encouraging Canadians to mask up.
Since then—in addition to social distancing and avoiding large gatherings—most Canadians have amassed a wardrobe of reusable masks. Meanwhile, Dr. Tam has adapted to being in the public eye for the foreseeable future. Heading into a pandemic winter, her message to Canadians is one of positivity: “We’ve done this before . . . and we can get through this.”
What she’s proudest of this year
“June 26 was my three-year anniversary as the CPHO. It was also the day I confirmed we had planked the first-wave curve. Being able to say this, and the thought that Canadians had united to keep each other safe, was the best way I could have imagined celebrating my CPHO anniversary. But behind the scenes, we were already looking ahead and learning from what we did in the first wave. How could transmission of the virus be kept at manageable levels while carefully opening up society? How could we better support seniors—and those who support them?
It’s not easy. When I tell Canadians it’s normal to feel stressed and worried—I feel those things, too. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wasn’t doing much exercise, but in June I started running again. I’ve run multiple marathons and half-marathons in the past. I’m not fast, but I have the perseverance to mentally do it.
When I run, I don’t listen to music, I just focus on breathing. I find it meditative. It’s a bit like working through all this. You have to focus on the present moment, taking one step at a time, while looking forward.”