Indoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people for at least the next 14 days by public health order.
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the order is to take effect this afternoon, Sept. 8, at 5 p.m.
Kandola said there is an outbreak of COVID-19 within the under-housed population in Yellowknife during a virtual press conference Wednesday morning.
Nineteen street involved individuals and 10 shelter employees have been infected.
The order covers Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, Dettah and Behchokǫ̀ and limits gatherings to 25 people indoors and 50 outdoors; households can have over five people from outside their bubble for a maximum of 10 people indoors; and essential businesses and facilities can go over the 25-person indoor limit if staffing levels are limited to the minimum number of staff needed to carry on operations.
High-risk indoor activities like fitness classes, dancing, singing, handgames and extra-curricular activities are restricted.
Masking remains mandatory in all indoor public spaces.
Employees should meet virtually if possible, especially if workers meet with others outside their workplace bubble, said Kandola.
The new order is a way to slow the rise in cases that could lead to “severe COVID-19 health outcomes and societal disruption,” Kandola said.
Schools will remain open for the time being, amid the occurrence of several COVID-19 cases in Yellowknife schools over the past week.
Response measures to those cases, such as mandatory masking and isolation of affected classes would continue.
Health Minister Julie Green, who also spoke in the video conference said the the NWT is “approaching a pivotal moment in the health system’s ability to cope with COVID-19.
“As things stand now, without swift action we risk putting unnecessary burdens on our health system and health care workers.”
NWT Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) CEO Kimberly Riles said the authority is rolling out its pandemic plan to face the added pressure on the health care system.
ICU capacity at Stanton Territorial Hospital has been increased from four to six beds and three additional inpatient beds will be made available.
“We will also be working to secure temporary long-term care placements for some of the medically-discharged patients who are currently occupying inpatient beds at Stanton,” Riles said.
Some elective procedures and surgeries will be postponed to free up space for patients needing higher levels of care.
Urgent and emergent procedures, including cancer surgery will be maintained.
Some primary care services will be moved to virtual care.
Riles acknowledged that Alberta is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 and some NWT residents might have planned appointments there postponed.
However, she said that so far no NWT residents needing hospitalization due to COVID-19 have been sent to Alberta.
In case that province’s health system becomes overwhelmed, “there is no intention to shut the door to NWT residents accessing care there” because Alberta treats NWT residents as equivalent to Albertans, Riles said.
Asked why health authorities didn’t announce a rise in cases among the under-housed population sooner, Green said the level of community transmission among the under-housed was beginning to strain the healthcare system and that population was identified as being in particular need of isolation and services.
“In the under-housed population we initially had one case two weeks ago and we had cases contacts isolate,” Kandola said. “Late last week we had an additional four cases become positive. They were isolated and contacts identified. Over the weekend we had rapid increase of more positive cases in the under-housed population and support staff were getting infected. We saw more hospitalizations at Stanton and ICU admissions, that led to the public health advisory on Tuesday and to our decisive action on the gathering order.”
Green added that because capacity is restricted at shelters in Yellowknife the GNWT has put out requests for information on securing additional spaces downtown.
“We had three responses. We’re looking at one of the possibilities in particular. We do realize the urgency for getting this shelter up and running. There are shelter services but they are thin and we are planning to being another shelter online within the next month to six weeks,” she said.
Riles said that among the supports for under-housed individuals in isolation are managed access to substances including alcohol and cigarettes provided by the teams on-site.
Health service changes in Yellowknife region
Routine or non-urgent appointments will be added to the call-back list and not booked immediately, the NTHSSA said in a separate news release.
Pap and other routine ‘complete physicals’ will be cancelled; pre-natal appointments will be changed to reduced schedules, and every second appointment will occur virtually by phone; week two and week six well baby checks will continue, while other well-child checks might be deferred unless specific concerns are raised.
Chronic disease management and mental health appointments are shifted to virtual or deferred.
Diabetes Education Program (DEP) and Opioid Maintenance Treatment Program (OMTP) appointments will be triaged by care providers and changed to virtual when appropriate.
At Stanton, pulmonary function testing is suspended to preserve Respiratory Therapy capacity, and non-urgent exercise stress tests might be suspended to allow for redeployment of staff to critical care.
To help protect the healthcare system the NTHSSA urges unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated. Sick residents or their children are asked to stay home and seek COVID-19 testing.