An Ottawa family doctor who organized mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics earlier this year has received a death threat and she is asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do more to protect health-care workers facing similar risks.
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth’s “jabapalooza” vaccine clinics – held outdoors in a residential neighbourhood last spring – got a lot of attention, but she says that after receiving a threatening letter she won’t be holding similar clinics when vaccines are approved for younger children.
“I’m literally afraid now to walk outside of my office, even in broad daylight, because somebody has said they’re going to kill me,” she said in an interview Thursday.
“So how can I possibly reach out and immunize people who aren’t my own patients?”
She said she also does not feel safe walking around her own neighbourhood alone.
“It’s one thing when it’s a troll on Twitter who tells us that we’re horrible people for immunizing. We can just block that kind of vitriol,” she said. “But when it comes to somebody actually sending a letter saying that I should be killed, that’s a line that can’t be crossed.”
The threat was contained in a letter, viewed by The Canadian Press, that was sent to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the regulatory body for the medical profession in the province.
In a statement Thursday, the college said it is aware that physicians have been receiving threats related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Any significant change in public health policy, such as what we have seen during the pandemic, has often resulted in physicians and (college) staff being subjected to abusive and intimidating behaviours by members of the public,” the statement said.
The college said it always notifies anyone named in a threat as soon as it is made aware and encourages physicians to contact their local police service. The college also said it does not get involved in complaints that do not involve clinical care or professional conduct.
“Physicians can play an important role by advocating for their patients in a socially accountable manner and frivolous or vexatious complaints are not a risk to their professional standing with the (college),” the statement said.
Kaplan-Myrth said she passed the letter on to the Ottawa Police Service. A police spokesperson confirmed Thursday the service received the complaint. They said the threat is targeted at one person and does not pose a risk to the safety of the broader community.
Kaplan-Myrth says she is appealing to Trudeau because she has not received support from the provincial government. She also posted her plea to Twitter on Thursday morning.
“Every time the prime minister tweets and says, `Keep going, keep getting vaccinated,’ he’s speaking to the Canadian public,” she said. “But also, (health-care workers) are the people doing it on the ground, and we are the ones being harmed.”
During the recent federal election campaign, the Liberals promised to bring in new criminal sanctions for anyone blocking access to vaccine clinics, hospitals, testing centres and abortion clinics, as well as for anyone intimidating or harassing health-care workers. The NDP had previously made a version of that pledge. Both promises were made as demonstrators were gathering outside hospitals to protest against proof-of-vaccination systems and other public health measures.
On Monday, government House leader Mark Holland said the promised legislation to protect health-care workers is one of the Liberal government’s top priorities.
Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, spokesperson in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a statement that harassment of any health care workers is “completely unacceptable.”
Vaillancourt also said that the government will “deliver on its commitments” to introduce legislation that makes it a criminal offence to harass or threaten health-care workers.
Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, did not comment specifically on the threat against Kaplan-Myrth, but said in a statement threats are a growing problem.
“These threats against health professionals are widespread and increasing in virulence and violence, which is very concerning,” Smart said in the written statement.
“Unfortunately, there are few mechanisms to ensure their safety, a serious gap in our health system. It is time to take action on this issue.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
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