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COMMUNITY REPORT: Fort Simpson readies for pandemic


The Village of Fort Simpson is getting ready for the worst possible case of the coronavirus as the streets went empty last week.

Fort Simpson enacted a regional emergency operations centre on March 23 in response to the ongoing pandemic. NNSL file photo

Mayor Sean Whelly said Wednesday that as the regional centre for government and as an access point for health care and food and emergency supplies from surrounding communities like Wrigley, Nahanni Butte and Jean Marie River, the community of just more than 1,000 people seems eerily quiet.

"We are a regional government centre, so there are a lot of people off work," Whelly said. "So it is really just the essential services that are going. I have noticed very few out-of-town people coming in. People from the satellite communities used to come in frequently, but I've noticed that is not happening so much."

Like other communities, the Northern store has run short on things like bread, toilet paper, and sanitizing products, he said.

Meanwhile, village facilities such as the library, fitness centre, community hall and village offices are all closed to the public.

The municipality held a public engagement session on COVID-19 with village councillors and Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson on March 16. On March 23, the village activated its emergency operations centre, which brings together a body of authorities to manage local public emergencies.

The centre is based on the community's Emergency Response Plan and in the past has been used to deal with circumstances that go beyond what one organization can handle, such as wildfires and floods.

Like other municipalities in the NWT, the village is mostly following the lead of the territorial government in the management of the pandemic but it's important to have local co-ordination among groups like the village, the band office, GNWT officials, the RCMP and health-care workers, Whelly said.

Sean Whelly
Sean Whelly, mayor of Fort Simpson.

Employees from the public works department have been working on rotating shifts during the pandemic crisis, said Whelly.

Fortunately, it's not a typically busy time of year.

"At least the other guys are at home - one week on and one week off. Back up - if we needed a sewer unplugged or something like that, you need guys, so we try to balance who is on and who is off. "

The village deferred its normal regular council meeting On March 23 in favour of an operations centre meeting at the Liidlii Kue First Nation band office. The band manager,  village manager and Whelly joined about a dozen people on a conference call for about an hour and a half. 

Discussions included what to do if the situation grows worse and how to protect the community. The village anticipates the territorial government will declare a full state of emergency at some point that will give the government greater powers to act. 

Right now, the village and First Nation leaders are trying to coordinate to respond to such a situation.

As for heath needs, Whelly said the community expects it will be pretty much on its own if a pandemic strikes.

"We sort of know that if a lot of people started to get sick here that by the time that would happen, Yellowknife would probably be loaded up with it and we would be on our own," said Whelly. "Nobody says that exactly but that is pretty much the way I see it. No one asks the question, 'how many ventilators are at the health centre.' It is almost like we don’t want to know the answer because it's probably not good."

Whelly remains hopeful, however, that the Dehcho region will be left relatively unscathed by the virus. He said people in Fort Simpson have been doing a good job social distancing from each other.

The streets are virtually deserted, he said.

"I took a drive around yesterday evening and there was literally not a vehicle moving and not a person walking around," said Whelly. "So I think people are trying pretty hard to do that self-isolating and distancing and everything else."