As he was driving back to his home in the N.W.T. after two weeks of work in Fort McMurray, Alta., Ernest Tonka was eager to get a COVID-19 rapid test as soon as he could.
Tonka wanted to be as safe as possible before visiting his mother, who lives in an Elder's home.
But when he arrived at the border, workers at the checkpoint told him he couldn't get a rapid test.
COVID-19 testing for returning travelers in the N.W.T. is available under the following conditions:
If you are going to a small community.
If you are an essential worker in Hay River, Inuvik, Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Norman Wells or Fort Simpson.
If you are not fully immunized for COVID-19.
If you have been told to get tested by public health staff.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms.
The government has also sent 4,000 boxes of rapid tests — 20,000 individual tests in total — to the Yellowknife and Inuvik airports. Every traveler coming through those airports is being asked to take one test on the day they arrive, and another 72 hours later.
But Tonka, who is fully immunized, is not an essential worker in the N.W.T. and is not returning to a small community. Also, he drove in the territory, rather than fly, so he doesn't qualify.
"So I said 'okay, I don't need a test?'" Tonka recalled. "And they said, 'no. You can go to your home, but monitor yourself.'"
'It's just like a free pass'
The Office of the Chief Public Health Officer said anyone coming back into the territory should keep their gatherings small, limit high-risk activities and wear a well-fitting mask in social settings for at least the first 72 hours after they return.
When he got home, Tonka said he called the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA), who said he didn't even need a test before visiting his elderly mother, because he has his two shots.
"It's just like a free pass," Tonka said.
And while he's glad to be vaccinated, he acknowledges that "even though you get your two shots, you're not cured; it's not a cure."
He was particularly worried about the possibility of picking up a breakthrough infection in Fort McMurray while Alberta's cases are once again trending up.
"In [Fort] McMurray, people don't wear masks," he said. "You go on a bus — people don't wear masks. People say that [Fort] McMurray is safe and people are well-protected there, but they're not."
Slip through the cracks
Currently, NTHSSA's website says "testing capacity is being triaged to ensure it is best used to manage the current COVID-19 outbreak, limit spread, and ensure individuals are released from isolation."
But Tonka said he thinks the current system is letting too many people slip through the cracks, especially if they come into the territory by car.
"I still feel uncomfortable with how I came into the Territories. My way of thinking is, when I come into the territory at the border — everybody that comes from outside, from [Fort] McMurray, from anywhere — when they arrive at the border, they should get a COVID[-19] test there," he said.
"Why is it that I'm allowed to come into the Northwest Territories without being tested at the border?"
Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, said bringing rapid COVID-19 tests to the territory's land borders comes with different logistical challenges than distributing them at airports.
"The thing with the rapid tests is that it can't be frozen, and so it makes it difficult to distribute at those checkpoints," she said.
The majority of COVID-19 rapid tests the N.W.T. has received from the federal government must be stored and transported at temperatures between 2 and 30 C, according to the manufacturers' technical specifications.
According to data from the federal government, as of Dec. 10, the N.W.T. had received nearly 210,000 COVID-19 rapid tests from the federal government. So far, less than a quarter of those tests have been distributed in the territory.