Non-essential travellers must pay for isolation centre stays, N.W.T. premier announces

·4 min read

People returning from non-essential travel outside the N.W.T. will soon be required to pay for their own stay at one of the territory's isolation centres, Premier Caroline Cochrane announced in a press conference Tuesday.

All travellers and returning residents are currently required to immediately self-isolate for 14 days. Following an outbreak of COVID-19 in Nunavut, this month a new public health order also required residents of the same household to self-isolate for the same period.

Residents and travellers who have a private home where they can isolate in either Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, or Yellowknife are allowed to isolate at home.

Those who don't, end up at one of the territory's isolation centres — hotels in each of those four communities — where the bill for a 14-day stay can reach up to $4,000 per person, according to the territory.

Until now, that bill has usually been footed by the territorial government, which says isolation centre costs account for more than half of the territory's COVID-19 spending to date.

But starting Jan. 5, 2021, only certain essential travellers will have that cost covered. That includes people travelling for medical or compassionate reasons, like visiting a terminally ill relative or travelling for a funeral.

Cochrane also said "anyone who is required to stay at an isolation centre because of the government of the Northwest Territories' policies" will have their stay paid, though it was not immediately clear who that would cover.

Other exemptions will be determined by the chief public health officer, Cochrane said Tuesday.

"Many of us miss the opportunities to go south in the winter," she said — but "we need residents to consider whether their trips out of the territory are really necessary."

Calls to replace surveys for isolation plan check-ins

Following Cochrane's announcement, Health Minister Julie Green emphasized the importance of sticking to self-isolation plans, which require that households in isolation maintain strict distance from others for 14 full days.

Currently, individuals self-isolating report possible symptoms of COVID-19 mostly via an online form. Green said that process would be changing, with government staff calling isolating people directly to check-in.

Green said the change would help "encourage compliance" and "follow up on wellness checks during the isolation period."

Catherine Pigott/CBC
Catherine Pigott/CBC

Green said the change is expected to happen in the next two weeks.

At Tuesday's press conference, Green, Cochrane and the chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, all spoke to the dangers of "pandemic fatigue," which has left fewer people taking public health measures seriously.

"As we head toward the season of celebration, pandemic fatigue is real," said Kandola. "But … right now, we have a choice to make — we can give into the fatigue and risk the sacrifices we've made so far to keep our territory strong, or we can commit ourselves to the healthy habits we know work, and together we can stop COVID-19 in its tracks."

Changes prompted by survey

Cochrane said the changes were tied directly to engagement sessions held on the government's COVID-19 response to date.

Last week, the government published results from those sessions which showed that most Indigenous, business and community leaders wanted to see reduced spending on isolation centres.

Those responses included calls for the territory to stop covering isolation centre stays for elective travel and allow residents to self-isolate at home outside of the four "hubs" designated by the government.

While those communities will still be the only place where travellers can isolate, Cochrane did say the government would be spreading the wealth by putting more pandemic services out to tender.

Cochrane said local bed-and-breakfasts could bid on contracts to provide accommodation, and other requests for proposals had been posted seeking providers for catering, security and transportation.

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Tuesday's announcement came just hours after federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the Canadian government has given the territory $30 million for its isolation hubs, calling it "money well spent."

In Tuesday's news conference, Cochrane said that money would not necessarily be spent by the COVID-19 secretariat, which manages the isolation hubs, though she said "health is the first priority" for that spending.

Speaking on CBC's The Trailbreaker Tuesday morning, Freeland said, "I think those isolation hubs, while obviously causing a lot of difficulty in people's lives, are keeping people alive and healthy and safe."

The N.W.T.'s review of its approach to isolation centres also comes as Nunavut recovers from an outbreak of COVID-19 that appeared to originate in an isolation centre in Winnipeg. Unlike Nunavut, the N.W.T. requires travellers to isolate after travel, not before.