Dr. Réka Gustafson, who as deputy provincial health officer led some of the province’s pandemic and toxic-drug updates, is now focused on the upcoming COVID-flu season, immunizations, and managing outbreaks in long-term care as she steps into her role as the Island’s chief medical health officer.
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 virus and vaccines have dominated our lives, but Gustafson says now is the time to shift from an emergency response to a more comprehensive approach to our health routines — including annual flu shots.
“It is important that at this stage we also remember the importance of influenza vaccination,” she said. “We need to make sure that we restore our childhood immunizations, our school immunization programs, so we can put all the preventive measures in place that that make sure that people stay well.”
Island Health announced Gustafson as its chief medical health officer in July after Dr. Richard Stanwick retired in January. Gustafson stepped down from her leadership role at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to take on the new role.
Over the coming months and years, Gustafson will lead the health authority’s public health teams in a recovery response from the pandemic, particulary as it pertains to the mental health impacts of the pandemic.
The ongoing overdose crisis is also among her top priorities. Toxic drug poisonings are the top cause of death for people ages 19 to 39 on Vancouver Island, and were the second-highest cause of death for those under 19 during the pandemic.
Gustafson said the contributing causes of problematic substance use typically happen in childhood and adolescence. The health authority needs to address those contributors to the toxic drug crisis, whether through school programming or prevention of adverse childhood events, she said.
“I have a very strong interest in focusing on that as a public health physician,” she said. “As a public health system, we absolutely need to respond to the crisis, but we need to address its roots causes at the same time.”
Tackling the direct and indirect impacts of climate change is high on Gustafson’s agenda.
“That’s probably my biggest passion, is to focus on what is actually affecting the health of Islanders and in particular — what is affecting the health and the individual communities — and not forgetting about the things that may not be at the top of the news,” she said.
Alcohol consumption, “which went up substantially during the pandemic,” is also a concern, she said.
“We know that that illness, injury and deaths due to alcohol consumption is a significant health issue in the population,” Gustafson said.
In its suggested update to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines released last month, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction says risk is negligible-to-low for two drinks per week, moderate for three to six drinks per week and increasingly high beyond that.
The proposed new guidelines are a sharp departure from the current guidelines, released in 2011, which suggested limiting alcohol use to 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men.
Gustafson said it will take more than communicating guidelines and even establishing municipal or provincial policies to reduce consumption. Rather, she said, it’s the “subtle normalization and cultural influences on alcohol consumption that really need to be addressed.”
“We have an issue we need to tackle but we need to tackle it in a way that recognizes the fact that this is a very significant portion of our culture and how we live our lives and it is really at a policy level and a social-cultural level that we need to address it,” she said.
Gustafson previously served as vice-president for public health and wellness with the Provincial Health Services Authority, as medical health officer for the City of Vancouver and as deputy chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.
She completed a master’s degree in science and health science and a medical degree at the University of B.C.
Gustafson said she considers it a privilege to be working for Island Health. She looks forward to getting to know her colleagues and particularly the communities on the Island and getting to learn about the local issues relevant to people here.
She said she’s in transition to the Island, spending most of the work week here, and “figuring out where I would like to settle.”