Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly is raising concern over what will happen to NWT residents receiving medical treatment in Alberta if the province’s health system collapses under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking to members of the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight on Tuesday evening, O’Reilly asked Health Minister Julie Green what the plan is in case Alberta’s health system is overwhelmed.
“At what point do we stop sending people to Alberta? For testing, for whatever? I think we need to recognize that this is a real possibility. And it’s going to happen in literally weeks, because Alberta is not doing what they should be doing,” O’Reilly said.
Green responded that NWT health authorities are aware of the hospital situation in Alberta and are in regular communication with officials at Alberta Health Services.
“There has been no change in the service level for NWT residents at this time,” Green said. “I know that people have been deciding not to go to Edmonton for routine medical appointments because they’re concerned about the outbreak there. But the service continues to be provided at the same rate that it was previously. And if there’s a change to that, that will be well publicized.”
Alberta experienced its worst month in the pandemic in November, with Covid-19 cases rising from 6,002 on Nov. 1 to to 16,628 by Nov. 30 and hospitalizations tripling in that period, CBC reported.
A total of 479 patients were in hospital on Nov. 30 and 97 were in ICU beds.
Restrictions to remain in place
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, who also spoke in the committee meeting, said that the intensity of the second wave of Covid across Canada means that the NWT isn’t ready to relax restrictions.
Her comments came in response to a question from Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who asked if it was possible that residents returning to the NWT from travel could isolate closer to their home communities rather than in the four hubs of Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith and Inuvik.
Kandola said that in August her office was considering making changes to the travel restrictions and self isolation orders because Covid cases across Canada were relatively low at that time.
But over the past few weeks cases have risen dramatically across the country and “any move to relax restrictions would not be a prudent response to the pandemic right now.”
“We’ve seen – looking at Nunavut – just how quickly in the space of one or two weeks you can obtain community-wide spread,” she said. “I made a decision that relaxing restrictions needs to be postponed. And we need to look at actually maintaining and tightening restrictions on travelers so we can get through the next six weeks.”
Johnson also asked if it was possible that bans on students singing in schools, which he called “ridiculous,” could be relaxed since the Covid risk to the NWT is mainly travel-related.
Kandola said that coronavirus doesn’t care whether or not a situation is “ridiculous” and it knows the conditions it needs to spread to a large number of people.
Aerosol transmission, such as singing, could increase the risk of Covid infection and lead to a super-spreader event, she explained.
“Across Canada, literally thousands of school outbreaks have occurred and hundreds of schools have been closed,” she said.
Isolation centre cost savings
The new policy on isolation centres that Premier Caroline Cochrane announced earlier on Tuesday will save about $1 million per month, said Health Minister Julie Green in the committee meeting.
Starting on Jan. 5, the GNWT will no longer pay isolation centre costs for people returning from leisure travel.
Costs will be covered only for medical travel; medically-advised self-isolation; compassionate travel, such as for funerals or for serious illnesses of an immediate family member; and travel for unforeseen or exceptional circumstances that would require a resident to leave the NWT.
“About half of the self-isolation costs are due to leisure travel,” Cochrane said in the committee meeting. “We are expecting that between Jan. 5 to the end of the fiscal year that we will be able to go down to about half of what we were we were projecting for that time period.”
Russell Neudorf, associate deputy minister responsible for the Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat, said alongside Cochrane that the $14.9 million spent on isolation centres up to Nov. 14 is unsustainable for the public, with each stay costing about $4,000.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked the premier for the rationale on rolling out the new isolation centre policy on Jan. 5 instead of immediately, suggesting that it might “encourage people to get one last run out of the territory, back into southern provinces when they can still … have the isolation (costs) covered when they return to the territory.”
Cochrane said Jan. 5 was chosen as the new date to give the public enough notice, considering that some people had already made plans to visit their families outside the NWT for the holidays.
The premier added that no members of her cabinet will be leaving the NWT for non-essential travel over the holidays and will do their trips inside the territory.
Vaccine delivery capacity
Although a vaccine for NWT residents is months away and procurement is in the hands of the federal government, Green struck an optimistic tone and said the territory has strong capacity for delivering a vaccine.
“Once the vaccine is available, we have a very efficient way of distributing it. We did almost 12,000 flu shots in six weeks (in the fall). So I feel that our capacity is very good for delivering the vaccine when it’s available. And we’ve also received assurance that the military will help us if called on to deliver the vaccines.”
She added that the GNWT has been asking for enough vaccine for half of the population.
Cochrane announced on Nov. 26 that’s hopeful a vaccine could be available for the NWT as soon as the spring.