Funerals, liquor stores, and mines: N.W.T. doctors answer your questions on COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic creating uncertainty among individuals and communities in the Northwest Territories, many people have been left with unanswered questions.

To connect the public with our territorial medical officials, Trailbreaker's Loren McGinnis hosted a one-hour call-in show Thursday morning with Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, and Dr. Sarah Cook, the N.W.T.'s territorial medical director.

The pair provided an update on the COVID-19 response in the territory, and took questions focusing on topics from funeral gatherings to southern workers at the N.W.T.'s diamond mines.

Read below for the highlights from that discussion.

What is the current situation in the N.W.T.?

As of Thursday afternoon, the territory still only has one confirmed case of COVID-19. That individual is "recuperating at home" and doing well, said Kandola.

Unlike most of the country, the territory remains in a "containment" phase, Kandola said, meaning that the focus remains on preventing an outbreak. That means that unlike the provinces, the territory is still able to aggressively test everyone showing even mild symptoms.

"Across the provinces, just because of the sheer demand ... they've moved away from testing all symptomatic cases," she said.

In terms of preparation, the N.W.T. currently has 13 ventilators, with six more able to be borrowed in case of an emergency, Cook said. Six more have been ordered and are on the way to the territory.

Cook said health officials have been hard at work changing the health care system to respond to the threat of a pandemic, with major efforts going into increasing virtual care. Patients and providers are now able to use video messaging apps to help with at-home diagnoses.

"That's a really big shift in terms of how we ... continue the care for patients without increasing risk," she said.

Up-to-date information on the current situation, and the territorial government's recommendations and response, can be found on the Health Department's website.

Dominion Diamond Corporation

How is the territory handling southern mine workers?

Last weekend, the N.W.T. announced a blanket travel ban for non-residents, with some exemptions for essential services, such as freight employees and health care workers. One of those exemptions was for workers at mine sites.

Kandola said that while those workers are still coming in to remote camps, they are following strict protocols, including self-isolating when they aren't on the job.


If she learns mines aren't in compliance with her regulations, she said she can write a binding public health order specifically addressing the resource sector.

How is testing being handled in small communities?

Some communities in the territory do not have resident nurses or doctors. Cook said the territory is "looking at options" to administer tests, if they are needed, in those communities, including using community health workers to administer swabs.

John Last/CBC

The territory will bring doctors and nurses into small communities if needed, she said, but it is also trying to prevent transmitting the virus to communities through workers.

"We're very cognizant of the risk," she said.

Should you be avoiding playgrounds?

Playgrounds in some parts of the country are being roped off, in an attempt to stop youth from potentially transmitting COVID-19.

No such specific directive has been issued yet in the N.W.T., but Kandola said "it would be wise to avoid the playground." Testing has shown COVID-19 can last for up to 72 hours on surfaces like plastic and steel.

John Last/CBC

Kandola said that she will be working with the territory's Department of Education, Culture, and Employment to come up with specific direction around playgrounds.

She also emphasized that, in studies so far, "very few children become symptomatic ... from COVID-19.

"It seems to be a virus that's hitting mainly older people," she said.

What are the proper precautions to take for funerals?

The territory is trying to limit mass gatherings, and, on Sunday, Kandola issued an advisory requesting that any gatherings be cancelled. However, in some small communities, funerals are still proceeding.

Kandola urged anyone preparing to hold a funeral to contact the territory's environmental health officer by email at environmental_health@gov.nt.ca, to get advice.

"It's really important that when we look at mass gatherings, that you reach out first," she said.

Why isn't the government closing liquor stores?

While many non-essential businesses and services across the N.W.T. have closed, liquor stores are still operating with reduced hours, leading to questions on if having alcohol on offer will increase the risk of residents gathering socially.

"This question was raised" in discussions among health officials, said Kandola. "We felt the harm caused by closing liquor stores would outweigh the benefit of opening it."


Some residents may turn to substances that contain alcohol but aren't meant to be consumed, she said.

A significant amount of people going through alcohol withdrawal at once could create a "significant strain" on the health-care system, Cook added.