‘Need is urgent’: Northwest Territories asks for federal help dealing with COVID-19 outbreak

The Northwest Territories is running through its resources to deal with the latest COVID-19 outbreak “pretty rapidly,” said Health Minister Julie Green. Now, the territory has asked the federal government and the Canadian Red Cross for additional staff and supplies.

The minister told CBC News on Wednesday that the territory needs help with testing and lab analysis and more people to administer vaccinations and fill other roles, and that it’s looking for more equipment — though she did not specify what equipment is needed. 

“We have reached out to the federal government and to the Red Cross for additional resources,” Green said.

“We were already challenged with the amount of staff we had available because of the time of year [with] lots of people on holiday. Now we have this tremendous need for more nurses.”

The territory was already facing a nursing shortage before the latest outbreak.

Green said her government doesn’t have any specific details of where and when more help will arrive, or how many people will be sent.

“All of those wheels are now in motion,” Green said. “Obviously the need is urgent and we expect to hear back as soon as possible.”

CBC has reached out to Health Canada and to the Canadian Red Cross but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Six communities with cases

The territory’s latest outbreak began earlier this month with a case at a Dene hand games tournament held in the remote community of Fort Good Hope, which is in the Sahtu region in central N.W.T. The outbreak has now spread to six communities and there’s no sign of it slowing down, in part because of uneven vaccination rates in the territory.

Two communities — Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake — were put under a 10-day containment order on Sunday

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the N.W.T. more than doubled on Tuesday to 70, with 44 of those in Fort Good Hope. Chief Tommy Kakfwi reported Monday that the community of just over 500 people has declared a state of emergency

There are also five cases in Colville Lake, three in Délı̨nę, 12 in Yellowknife, five in Norman Wells and one in Inuvik, all connected to the outbreak. It isn’t yet known whether the cases are the delta variant, but Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer, said Monday that was likely.

Testing is ongoing in all of the communities where there have been cases reported, and more positive cases are expected, Green said. 

“There’s, I’m gonna say, a high number of probable cases here that are waiting for lab confirmation,” Green said. 

There’s also a “high ratio” of the number of tests being taken leading to positive results, Green said — higher than in the N.J. Macpherson School outbreak in Yellowknife declared in May. At the time of that outbreak, the percentage of tests resulting in positives was the highest in the territory to date.

Green said people have been transported by medevac air ambulance from Colville Lake, and that there’s been one hospitalization so far, though she offered no details on that case. 

She said the medevacs relate not only to the severity of the cases, but the lack of available health care in the community. For example, Colville Lake’s health facility is a “health cabin” without a full-time nurse, she said.

“So, medevacs in situations like that are precautionary,” Green said. “We’re concerned that the support we can provide in that situation won’t be adequate to the need.”

Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson said big gatherings, like bingos and hand games, have the potential to be COVID-19 spreader events. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Gatherings give COVID-19 chance to spread 

Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson said the situation is “pretty stressful for the communities.”

Thompson said his department has activated the emergency management organizations in the Sahtu and the North Slave regions to meet residents’ needs, such as housing.

The number of exposure locations has grown and the government is especially concerned about a public exposure notice at several bingos at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre in Yellowknife.

Thompson said, like the hand games, bingos can be “an opportunity for the COVID virus to spread,” because they bring multiple people together in close proximity.

Green also warned of the possibility of further spread at the two large funerals planned this week, one in Inuvik and the other in Yellowknife.

“It’s very important that if you are in a community that has a containment order, if you live in the Sahtu, that you not attend these funerals … no matter your desire to do so to honour the family,” Green said.

She emphasized that those who do go should be limited to those who “most need to be there” and that people wear masks and sanitize their hands.

“That has the potential to be quite a dangerous situation,” Green said.

Green said the territory’s route out of this crisis relies on people following the orders of the chief public health officer, such as self isolating and self monitoring if required.

“We’re saying to people, ‘Please don’t go out on the land, in response to this,'” she said. “Please stay home and monitor your symptoms so that you’re in a place where you can receive medical attention.”

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