The territory’s public health authority is maintaining recommendations for social distancing even though the NWT Medical Association is advocating for balancing harms of that practice with the risk of harm from Covid-19.
“Based on all information we have available, it is our belief that physical distancing is a best practice which NWT residents should be following to protect themselves, and protect each other – much like wearing a seatbelt while in a moving vehicle,” said Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO), following a meeting with the NWT Medical Association last week.
The meeting followed the release of an open letter in which territorial medical professionals called attention to the increase in anxiety, depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, financial stress and other harmful effects that public health orders like social distancing are causing in the territory.
NWT Medical Association president Dr. Andrew Kotaska said the purpose of the meeting was “to bring the experiences and concerns of physicians on the front lines who are seeing patients to the attention of public officials and health administrators who aren’t necessarily confronted with them. We all want to be cautious. We don’t want to make missteps, but we also have to be conscious that the balance starts to shift as harm from social distancing measures accumulate.”
Kotaska pointed to the similarities in the association’s letter to NWT’s office of the CPHO and an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister and 13 provincial and territorial Premiers from infectious disease specialists, former health officials, and medical academics across the country.
That letter, dated July 6, calls for “a balanced approach to dealing with Covid-19,” and states that current measures carry “significant risks to overall population health.”
Furthermore, “aiming to prevent or contain every case of Covid-19 is simply no longer sustainable at this stage in the pandemic,” the letter reads.
According to Kotaska, having “some of the most respected academic and professional infectious disease people in the country” highlighting the same message as the NWT Medical Association “let’s us know that we’re not alone in struggling with these questions and the balance.”
The medical association and the Office of the CPHO will continue to have conversations to “establish a plan that is optimal for the overall health (of NWT residents), not just (prevent) the physical harm from the Covid virus, which, so far, thankfully, has been very limited,” said Kotaska. “This disease is going to be with us for years. We really have to realize that preventing any infection at all cost isn’t a reasonable approach. It’s likely that this is going to come in, and that won’t be a failure of public health measures.”
In their meeting, Kotaska emphasized there was much that the association and CPHO’s office agreed on, too. They concurred that border entrance restrictions and isolation measures for incoming travellers and residents have been key to limiting Covid in the territory.
Westwick echoed those areas of “shared values of protecting and promoting physical, emotional, and cultural health and wellbeing in the Northwest Territories.” Though he added that disagreement is natural “with these kinds of rapidly-evolving issues.”
“These discussions are healthy,” Westwick said in an email. “Policy should never be made in a bubble. And we see this as part of an important, ongoing dialogue with practitioners across the territory.”
Kotaska said all stakeholders at last week’s meeting “share a gratitude for the enormous amount of work done by the office of the CPHO, and the slew of community workers who have spent countless hours building a system to keep Covid from entering the NWT, to prevent the spread of the virus when it arrives, and care for the patients that we might have.”
He explained that their critiques do not diminish that gratitude, and he noted that in the Covid era there is no model for how best to move forward.
“Everybody is making it up,” he said.