Capacity in the intensive care unit at the Northwest Territories' main hospital is being pushed to the limit by an influx of COVID-19 patients.
When asked about Stanton Territorial Hospital's capacity on Monday, N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green told CBC News that the hospital's six ICU beds "have been taken up by people who are sick with COVID."
A spokesperson for the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority said on Tuesday that the number of ICU beds available changes daily or hourly, and that under their pandemic plan, Stanton can scale up to eight ICU beds.
Still, the COVID-19 situation is "very serious," Green said on Monday.
"We have not started to plateau yet. We are still picking up cases and worrying about our response to that. Obviously, it's stretching us as far as we can go to keep up with the number of new cases."
N.W.T. has highest rate of active cases in Canada
With 1,190 cases since mid-August, and dozens of new cases emerging each day, the Northwest Territories is in the throes of its worst outbreak of COVID-19 yet. The N.W.T. currently has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country — more than 1.5 times the rate of Alberta, which has the second highest.
As of Tuesday, the recent outbreak had seen 36 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, 13 N.W.T. COVID-19 patients have wound up in the ICU and six have died.
The strain on the territory's health care system is palpable.
Clinics in Yellowknife, Behchokǫ and a handful of smaller communities have been reduced to essential services only while healthcare staff are redeployed as a result of the outbreak.
In mid-September, the health authority warned residents that non-urgent procedures would be cancelled or delayed, and that routine and non-urgent appointment bookings would be put on pause. Home care would be triaged and opioid maintenance treatment appointments would be triaged or moved online. Mental health and addictions counselling sessions also moved online.
On Sept. 22, the health authority alerted the public to oxygen supply issues at Stanton Territorial Hospital. A news release three days later said the problem hadn't affected the hospital's ability to care for COVID-19 patients, but it had delayed "certain procedures or appointments."
So far, said Green, N.W.T. hasn't had to medevac COVID-19 patients to Alberta during this outbreak, a small relief given that Alberta's health care system has been pushed toward the limit, largely COVID-19 patients who aren't fully vaccinated.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said on Tuesday that the province continues to accept N.W.T. patients and it doesn't foresee that changing.
"As things stand now, with the cases escalating and cases affecting all segments of the population by age, we have a lot of work to do to bring this under control," said Green.
Some of that work includes effective lockdowns in Behchokǫ, Yellowknife, Ndilǫ and Dettah, where households are banned from having guests indoors with few exceptions. Visitors to Behchokǫ must provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter the community.
The federal government has sent back up from the Canadian Red Cross: about a dozen nurses, a couple of doctors and staff to help out with the temporary shelter at the Yellowknife Arena, said Green.
"My hope is that this agreement that we have now [with the Red Cross] that goes to Oct. 14 can be reviewed and extended if necessary," she said.
The federal government also sent oxygen concentrators, medical devices that feed patients extra oxygen, from the national stockpile, Green said, though she didn't specify how many.
Green also noted that all of the people in N.W.T. who have died from COVID-19 have been Indigenous. They come from different communities and range in age, she said.
Some were elders — knowledge keepers, said Green.
"It really is sad," she said. "We know how much people value the knowledge keepers in the N.W.T., and to lose them to this disease is really heartbreaking."