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NWT REPORT: Premier talks about COVID-19 projections, enforcement and bailouts

Premier Caroline Cochrane_web

As some jurisdictions in Canada release daunting projections for the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths forecasted for the months ahead, Premier Caroline Cochrane says there is currently not enough data in the NWT to paint a picture of just how badly the territory could be hit by the virus.

Premier Caroline Cochrane: territory will aggressively pursue enforcement measures to keep residents safe.

Without evidence of community spread — all five COVID-19 cases confirmed in the territory have been linked to travel — Cochrane said it’s difficult to model scenarios projecting the number of potential infections and deaths in the NWT.

“Right now (provinces) are modeling it across the country because they’re swamped by COVID-19 — there’s over 11,000 cases across the country; it's a community spread now (outside of the NWT); no longer just international travel,” Cochrane told NNSL Media in an interview Friday.

“We could make a projection based on population figures; doing a statistical analysis of what’s happening in the south. But there are precipitating factors that we have to take into consideration, like our border crossing,” said Cochrane.

Alberta and Quebec are expected to release models this week, while Ontario, citing transparency, released stark projections for COVID-19’s impact on April 3.

With the current health measures and restrictions in place, Ontario projects between 3,000 and 15,000 COVID-19-related deaths over the course of the pandemic.

Cochrane said there are a lot of factors that go into modeling, including where cases in the NWT are popping up.

“If there's a case found in Yellowknife and it’s community spread, our risk of infection, our projection would be much higher than if it’s a case found in a small community,” she said.

“I’m not going to project that 2,000 are going to get it in the NWT if it’s only in one small community."

If community spread is confirmed in the territory, Cochrane said further analysis will “absolutely” be done.

Stanton Territorial Hospital well equipped, says premier

Asked about preparations at Stanton Territorial Hospital, the territory's largest hospital, Cochrane said the brand new “state-of-the-art” facility is well equipped and well stocked with personal protective equipment. Of the five confirmed COVID-19 cases, one patient from Fort Resolution has been hospitalized in Yellowknife.

Personal protective equipment was one of the many topics discussed during Cochrane’s two-hour long teleconference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and territorial premiers on Thursday.

NNSL Media has requested updated figures of the number of face masks, gowns, protective glasses and ventilators at Stanton Territorial Hospital, and is still awaiting a response from the territory’s press secretary.

Cochrane said the federal government, along with the provinces and territories, are taking on a “united” approach by agreeing to share crucial equipment where it’s needed most.

“We agreed to work together — all provinces and jurisdictions, regardless of political parties, have decided that this is so serious that we’re going to work united to address this," said Cochrane.

"So instead of competing for supplies individually, we are now working as one now,” she added, noting Ontario and Quebec, two provinces reeling from a sharp spike in community cases and hospitalizations, are in more dire need of supplies.

Pushing PM for relief tailored to the North

Raising concerns about COVID-19’s economic impact on NWT businesses, Cochrane said she’s asked Trudeau for relief for small regional airlines — an integral supply chain to the communities.

“The airlines are struggling,” she said, adding territorial premiers emphasized the same point with the prime minister.

Trudeau, still in the “listening” phase,” didn’t commit to an airline bailout, and no figures were put on the table, said the premier.

COVID-19’s impact on NWT mines, along with tourism and the business sector as a whole, were other “major” issues raised with Trudeau last week, said Cochrane. The federal government is asking each province and territory to submit a list of their projected needs in the wake of COVID-19 and follow-up letters will be sent to Trudeau, she added.

To name or not to name a community? 

After confirming two new cases Thursday, health officials revealed that one of the individuals, who entered the NWT on March 22 after travelling elsewhere in the country, submitted a mandatory self-isolation plan but returned home to a small community — breaching an order to self-isolate in one of the territory’s four “designated self-isolation” sites:Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith.

The person developed symptoms March 26 and was later hospitalized in Yellowknife. As per territory protocol, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer did not release the name of the small community the person had travelled back to — a policy that has prompted concerns from some residents who want to know if their community was impacted.

The community -- Fort Resolution -- was identified by the chief, Louis Balsillie and several other people on social media less than 12 hours later, although the health department has not confirmed the reports.

Cochrane says, for now, the territory will continue its policy of not naming small communities when new COVID-19 cases are announced but that could change if an outbreak occurs.

“There is a fine balance between privacy protection laws and the safety of communities,” said Cochrane, explaining the reasoning behind the controversial protocol.

“So at all times we try to protect the privacy of any individual, and then if there was a vast outbreak in a community, the personal safety of a person would come second and the community would first,” said Cochrane.

“So there’s always an assessment made,” added the premier.

Asked whether the hospitalized person would face penalties for breaching the order — a $10,000 fine or up to six months in jail could come with violations — Cochrane said she can’t speak to specific cases, but said the circumstances of the individual’s travel are being investigated by public health officials. The investigation was confirmed NWT Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Dr. Kami Kandola during a press conference Saturday. She said at this time, the patient’s health is the top priority.

Kandola, stressing the importance of maintaining patients' privacy in certain cirucmstances as a human rights issue, noted backlash COVID-19 positive people have faced in recent weeks.

Cochrane, addressing the media alongside Kandola on Saturday, said enforcement was something her government always knew would be necessary.

“COVID-19 is not something that will be here today and gone tomorrow. Our fear is that people will desensitize. People will forget we've locked down our borders. Some people think they’re safe, they’re not safe,” said Cochrane.

“If we need to — if people are blatantly disregarding the order, we are ready to step up and we made a commitment to our residents that we would be aggressive to protect them and we will stand by that commitment,” said Cochrane.

“If that takes stronger enforcement then we will do that. We will do whatever we can in our power to keep the residents of the NWT safe,” she continued.

'If we don't have people engaged and working with us, we’re going to lose’

Cochrane told NNSL Media Friday her biggest concern is protecting residents in smaller communities. That’s why it is so important to heed the advice — and orders — of Kandola.

“We need the people to listen, to abide by the order. Wash your hands, two metres away, no large gatherings. If we don't have people engaged and working with us, we’re going to lose.”