In a transformative week that saw COVID-19 spread globally, the GNWT held a news conference on Friday featuring senior government leaders and health professionals providing an update at the Great hall of the NWT Legislative Assembly.
A news release stating that there were zero cases of COVID-19 while 80 people have been tested, was also issued Friday.
Led by Premier Caroline Cochrane, Friday’s conference included Diane Thom, minister of Health and Social Services, Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer, Ivan Russell, manager of emergency operations with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, and Kim Riles, chief operating officer with Stanton Territorial Hospital.
Cochrane stated that after a first ministers’ conference call Friday morning, she is calling for a North-specific response from the federal government to prepare for whatever eventual impact COVID-19 has on northern communities.
As of Friday, there were zero cases of the virus in the NWT, however Cochrane said it isn’t a matter of if the virus hits, but when. Residents in isolated Northern communities will need special federal assistance, she added based on unique and costly conditions associated with fly-in and out communities with no road infrastructure, overcrowded housing, and a lack of health-care accessibility and capacity.
“For me it was a matter of reinforcing that although we are often preparing ourselves as 45,000 people, that is about one city block in the City of Toronto,” she said. “They don’t have 33 communities in that one block. They don’t have 33 water treatment plants, municipal centres, etc.
“Our expenses are huge and 33 times more than a jurisdiction in the south.”
She said similar concerns were heard from the premiers of Yukon and Nunavut.
“(Prime Minister) Trudeau has committed that he will be looking to do special measures for the North recognizing our needs are more dire,” she said. “We are the most vulnerable people.“
A response is expected “in the next couple of days,” she added.
Front line healthcare professionals
Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom reiterated the premier’s comments stating that the expectation is that there will be “new challenges” in the weeks and months ahead even as at the present time, the risk of contracting the virus remains low.
Still, she expects frontline health care staff to face new conditions as the virus spreads North.
“I know we will soon be entering into a time over the coming weeks and months where we will have to call upon staff to continue to support our the health system and the delivery of the health system to residents in ways that will require new levels of sacrifice when it comes to work/life balance and spending time with family and friends,” she said.
Dr. Kami Kandola, who led a news conference on Wednesday, reiterated that there remain zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the NWT and that screenings are taking place for anyone travelling outside of the territory with flu-like symptoms within 14 days.
Kandola reported that as of Friday morning there had been 80 tests performed for COVID-19 and all came back negative.
She said when cases of the virus arrive, her office will announce it in a press release when it is identified as “presumptive cases” based on flu swabs sent to Alberta labs. This announcement would take place before a final confirmation from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, she said.
In Canada, there are 152 COVID cases and one death as of Friday.
“We do know that the common cold, the flu and pertussis are all circulating in the Northwest Territories and presents with similar symptoms as COVID-19,” she said.
Safety for vulnerable population
Kandola provided a list of recommendations on how those with symptoms can avoid spreading the virus. Among them include identifying and reporting on flu-like symptoms if one has travelled outside the NWT over the last 14 days, staying home if sick and avoiding close contact (six feet) with others; cover nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing; use tissue to wipe up and throw away immediately and wash hands frequently with soap for 20 seconds or use a sanitizing product.
Kandola also stressed the importance of planning for an outbreak in the North with emergency supplies.
“Just like we prepare for the weather, ferry or ice-road closure, have a plan in place that includes keeping two weeks of household supplies such as food, water cleaning supplies and medication and also make arrangements for child care or taking care of an Elder if you otherwise aren’t able to,” she said.
Kandola also said festival boards should keep in touch with her office for a “risk assessment” to ensure they are safe to carry on with public gatherings that could potentially spread the virus.
Ivan Russell, a manager of emergency operations with the Department of Municipal of Community Affairs, said an emergency Operations Centre was being launched as of Friday to working with the NWT’s 33 communities and ensure that plans are in place to continue government services if the virus hits locally.
“Our main effort at this time is ensuring the readiness of our communities and supporting the public health out,” he said.