Months before she became the public face of Manitoba’s vaccine rollout, Dr. Joss Reimer sat down in front of her cellphone camera and pressed record.
"I’m sure that you will all be so generous with your critiques of me, since I’ve never done anything like this before," she said in the video, looking calm and confident, seated in a soft-backed chair with a digital piano in the background.
In the measured and matter-of-fact cadence Manitobans recognize from her now-frequent appearances at live-broadcast news conferences, she continued.
"I want to start just by making sure we’re all on the same page to understand: what is COVID-19, how does it impact you, who’s at risk, how does it spread, why is it here?"
In non-pandemic times, the 38-year-old public health doctor would have been spending her free moments away from work playing the piano. Or getting competitive on the beach volleyball court, going on long bike rides, and spending more time with her partner and their 10-year-old Havanese dog, Ernesto.
But in the early days of the pandemic, she spent spare minutes making a video series, "Corona Chats with Dr. Joss," to share medical knowledge with family and friends. It was an answer to an inundation of questions from those (figuratively) closest to her.
"Right at the beginning of the pandemic, people were so confused, so scared, and I was getting so many phone calls and texts and emails from friends and family who asked a lot of the same questions," Reimer said in a recent phone interview.
The short video clips — recorded on evenings and weekends, edited by friends and posted on her personal social media channels — tackled common queries about face mask use, contact tracing, rapid testing, travel, and more than a dozen other topics throughout last spring.
"It was a way for me to reach my community and my surrounding loved ones to get them information that they could trust as quickly as possible," Reimer said.
"I feel like I trained my whole life for this moment." –Dr. Joss Reimer
She didn’t know then she would be seconded from her position as medical director for population and public health in Winnipeg, and named medical lead and spokeswoman of the largest immunization effort undertaken in Manitoba’s history.
It’s a camera-ready job title she says doesn’t capture the collaborative team working behind the scenes. The position was created late last year, as the first vaccine shipments made their way to the province.
Instead of focusing on Winnipeg, as she primarily had for nearly a decade, Reimer gradually expanded her public health planning across the province as the pandemic took hold. She has been a medical officer of health since 2012, speaks three languages, grew up in rural Manitoba, and has worked internationally, seeing matters of health equity first hand.
"I feel like I trained my whole life for this moment," Reimer said.
Now that she’s tasked with projecting Manitobans’ hopes for the new vaccines and facing their criticisms of the slow pace of the rollout, she says her mission hasn’t changed: save lives and help people be healthy.
"I just really hope that they see me as a trustworthy source of information," Reimer said. "If I have one goal, I'm not so much worried about what they think about me… but I do want Manitobans to feel that they can rely on the information that I have for them."
That means being upfront, even when you don’t have all the answers, when anticipated vaccine supplies don’t arrive, or when there are adverse side-effects.
"Exactly what she's doing," said Dr. Pierre Plourde, a medical health officer and University of Manitoba professor in community health sciences.
"Not come across as an arrogant know-it-all, I've got everything under control; to be willing to be human. To be willing to say ‘I don't know’ when we don't know. To be willing to deal with the uncertainty and to develop a flexibility, as she has, along with people working with her — flexibilities in the program such that you can handle nasty surprises like vaccine deliveries not coming through."
Plourde speaks from experience, having helped lead the vaccine campaign during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. He’s known Reimer for years — first as one of her instructors, then as co-workers at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority — and has taken over some of her previous duties while she serves on the task force.
He describes her as "beyond her years in talent and ability," including when it comes to being comfortable and clear in front of the camera.
"It's not easy. Not all medical officers of health like to do that."
It’s no surprise Reimer has risen to the challenge of leading the vaccine task force — "the gold-medal event" in the field of public health, says medical health officer Dr. Sarah Lesperance.
"It's an awful challenge and tragedy to have a global pandemic underway, but this is what public health trains for," she said. When Reimer says she’d offer everyone the vaccine tomorrow if she could — a sentiment often shared in news conferences and among other public health officials — she really means it, Lesperance said.
Among the team, Reimer is known as someone who stays on top of the latest scientific research, figures out how it’s going to affect people in different regions and from different backgrounds, adapts the plan accordingly, and finds ways to explain everything concisely.
"That's very much who she is. She is very approachable in addition to being someone who is going to be exacting... in terms of following professional standards and making sure she's doing everything in the best way possible," Lesperance said.
The realities of distributing a limited supply of vaccines have hit home for Reimer, who has spoken about her 93-year-old grandmother in an assisted living facility, anxiously awaiting her turn.
"It's been really hard for her to not be connected to family. I think the phone is not easy for her," Reimer said.
"We're trying to connect as much as we can, and the sooner we can get things under control, the better it will be for her and people like her."
"I don't envy her position but I'm proud of the work she's doing." –Dr. Murray Reimer
Growing up in Winkler with a mother who worked as a teacher and a family doctor/anesthetist father, Reimer didn’t initially envision a career in medicine.
"She said she never wanted to be a doctor, just because of seeing how often I was called away, I couldn't be at home with the family," said Dr. Murray Reimer. Regardless, her father said he "knew she was capable of anything she wanted to do."
Murray Reimer has been practising in Winkler for 40 years, and recently received his COVID-19 vaccine. He said he feels for everyone who hasn’t yet had that chance.
"I don't envy her position but I'm proud of the work she's doing," he said of his daughter.
As a teen eager to experience other cultures, Joss Reimer moved to Switzerland for a few months, living with family friends and attending high school. There, she picked up French — "Which is why I'm sure Franco-Manitobans can hear that I have a very strange accent."
Diplomacy appealed to her and she continued travelling and working — in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Kenya — and became fluent in Spanish. She found her way into medicine after completing a political science degree, and then trained as an obstetrician/gynecologist before switching to public health, seeing it as an ideal blend of her interests in global policy and medicine.
"I really do feel like everything that I did leading up to now made me ready to do this work. And that's not to say that I'm not going to make mistakes, and we're not going to make the wrong decisions sometimes. We absolutely are.
"But you know, I look back on everything I learned in medical school, in residency, in my career as a medical officer, in other countries, in different parts of Manitoba… all of those experiences have really made me feel like I'm well-equipped to do this really impossible job right now."
The 12- or 13-hour days Reimer is currently working, packed with virtual meetings, don’t leave much time for hobbies. Running, cycling and enjoying the river paths have given her some respite, along with walking her dog.
"It's hard to feel stressed when your dog is so excited (when she gets home). And I have a two-year-old niece who doesn't know what COVID is, so talking to her is very refreshing," Reimer said.
As was one recent encounter with a stranger who stopped her on the street, simply to thank her.
"I get a huge boost of energy from seeing how the things we do can help Manitobans," she said.
"I think I've been functioning on adrenaline for most of this year, and it's still working fairly well because it's hard not to feel energized by watching all of the difficulties people are going through and then just thinking about how you can try to make it better."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.