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Rapid testing should be part of NWT's re-opening plan

Managing a pandemic is an exercise in balancing public health and people’s tolerance for restrictions on their way of life. By and large, the “Emerging Wisely” plan released by the GNWT is a well-laid out, reasonable approach to easing current restrictions.

However, the plan does not provide the certainty many will need to confidently make efforts to re-open our economy and public services. This is because the GNWT can quickly “flip the switch” to increase restrictions once again in order to respond to new Covid-19 cases in the territory.

Businesses, schools, recreation centers, and public spaces cannot simply “flip the switch” in response to the GNWT toggling between the less and more restrictive phases of its plan. As a business re-opens, it must rehire staff, rebuild its supply chains, and generate cash flow. Many businesses may not be able to invest the time and effort to re-open if there is a threat of further forced closures looming in the immediate future.

Our schools are a concrete example of this problem. When Covid-19 first hit the territory, teachers and administrators in our schools worked rapidly to shut down and pivot to virtual teaching. This effort took two to three weeks. When the GNWT advised that schools were able to open again, these same teachers and administrators were faced with the daunting prospect of possibly shifting their efforts to opening our mothballed schools and preparing classroom-based learning and risk management plans. This would again take enormous effort and time. It's therefore no surprise that the school districts have all said a hard no to opening before the fall.

I understand that the GNWT is prioritizing health at the expense of certainty for our economy and public services, and it is hard to argue with that. But I wonder if there might be a better way of striking a balance.

We’ve been told a few times rapid testing would come to the territory in “two to three weeks,” yet there is barely a whisper of it in the plan. Readily available rapid testing would greatly increase our ability to identify who has Covid-19 and who does not. Isolation and distancing measures could then be used in a hyper-localized way to contain spread. If an outbreak occurs in one community, rapid testing and containment there might mean that the other 32 communities would not have to endure increased restrictions.

With rapid testing, most people in the NWT could get on with their lives with far more certainty for the future. Fourteen-day self-isolation for returning residents, for example, could become unnecessary. Just take a test, and if its negative, you’re good! Unsure if you can come close to your family, teammate, or colleague?

Testing could mean the end of awkwardly standing six feet away from people you are pretty sure don’t have the virus. Rapid testing could even allow us to relax our border restrictions, which would be a ray of faint hope for those in the devastated tourism and hospitality sectors. This is exactly what is happening in Iceland, where incoming travellers who test negative can avoid mandatory self-isolation.

There may be a whole bunch of financial and logistical reasons why rapid testing is not a prominent part of the “Emerging Wisely” plan. However, we do know that it is possible, and that it is in fact happening in our own territory. Diavik is in the early stages of implementing mandatory, Health Canada-approved rapid testing for all employees as they arrive or depart the mine site.

If Diavik can do this, with an onsite population comparable to many of our communities, why can’t we as a territory?