Her down-to-earth manner and calm intelligence have steadied Ottawa through a ground-shifting few weeks. Medical Officer of Health Vera Etches has become an instant household name and the most trusted local voice through the COVID-19 pandemic. But many watching the regular updates on television know little about the person behind the lab coat.
Etches grew up in Hazelton, a village in northern British Columbia with a current population of 300. After a science degree at Simon Fraser University and medical school at UBC, she completed a Master’s degree in health science, as well as a fellowship in community medicine at the University of Toronto. A visit to Malawi during medical school was particularly formative for her, and she realized that she wanted to tackle health from a big-picture, long-term perspective, understanding how public health is shaped by politics and agricultural practices, as well as personal choices.
As a uOttawa Adjunct Professor in the School of Epidemiology, Public Health and Preventive
Medicine (SEPH), Dr. Etches has been supervising and helping to prepare the many medical students and residents on rotations at Ottawa Public Health. She coaches students for their oral exams, serving as a practice examiner and developing exam preparation materials. Dr. Etches is also a member of the School’s External Expert Liaison Committee, which works to ensure integration of expertise between the academy and the community.
Two years ago, when Dr. Etches made history as the first woman to hold the top position at Ottawa Public Health, after almost a decade working for the organization, she couldn’t have known how quickly she would be thrown into a global crisis. This week she has been tasked with delivering difficult messages—advising parents not to take their children to visit grandparents, admitting that we don’t know just how long we will have to hold ourselves apart, and warning that the real numbers in Ottawa are orders of magnitude more than what we see reported. It’s a pill that is easier for the public to swallow coming from someone so clearly in touch with local concerns.
We are all beginning what promises to be a very difficult few months, but having established instant trust with the city’s population, Dr. Etches is well positioned to lead us through it.