Northern communities could change their pandemic isolation rules

·5 min read

Northwest Territories communities are considering whether to change the territory's isolation rules in a series of meetings with Premier Caroline Cochrane and senior pandemic response officials.

At the moment, almost anyone entering or returning to the territory must isolate for 14 days in one of the territory's four largest communities: Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik, or Fort Smith.

The rule exists to provide an extra layer of protection for smaller, more isolated N.W.T. communities, where medical services aren't as developed.

However, some of those smaller communities are starting to request alterations to the isolation rules. For example, the village of Fort Simpson is looking to allow more medical travellers to return to the community for isolation.

At the moment, Fort Simpson residents heading south to Alberta for medical procedures must stay in Hay River, a seven-hour drive away, for two weeks when they return.

Discussion of changing the rules arose at an emergency meeting of communities on Sunday, called two days earlier by the premier after the N.W.T. reported four new cases of COVID-19 in a week. They are the territory's first confirmed cases in half a year.

Communities will continue that conversation with the premier at further meetings on Wednesday and Friday this week.

"They're going to have two consultation-type meetings with mayors and chiefs to go over how they feel about self-isolation – whether their communities are willing to open up things and be a little more flexible about how isolation is working," Mayor of Fort Simpson Sean Whelly told Cabin Radio after Sunday's meeting.

"I'll definitely be bringing it up," Whelly said, referring to his community's desire for more residents heading south on medical travel to be allowed directly home on their return.

"Fort Liard, too, wants to see more of their residents coming back to the community and not having to isolate in the hub," he said, characterizing the neighbouring Dehcho community's views during Sunday's discussion.

"The government is definitely open to that. They want to hear how it can be done and whether communities are comfortable with some changes – and if they are, to what degree? I think we'll know by the end of the week."

Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty said Sunday had also provided an opportunity for the larger isolation hubs, like her city, to feed back on the process.

"I think there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to isolation," Alty said.

"The complaints I hear from residents are about the turnaround time to get your plans approved and some of the confusion that sometimes exists there.

"The NWT government has committed to trying to improve that."

All 33 N.W.T. communities were invited to Sunday's meeting. The premier's office said 24 communities were represented.

According to a summary provided by her office, Premier Cochrane used the meeting to tell communities their leaders had a responsibility to "normalize the fact that the N.W.T. will get new cases of COVID-19."

"The meeting was an opportunity to provide community leadership a general update on the GNWT Covid response, including an update on the recent cases. There was also opportunity for a question-and-answer period," said a spokesperson for the premier.

Premier Cochrane, they said, had "reiterated the need for calm."

Last week, the premier and chief public health officer had each appealed for residents to dial down what they termed the "online backlash" whenever a new case of COVID-19 is reported.

"She was talking about residents continuing to be kind to each other," said Whelly,

"This complaining about people leads to a lot of division in the territory. We still have to realize we're all in this together. Rather than picking on each other, let's find ways to work together. I agree with her there.

"We can't lose our humanity in our little communities here."

Whelly said there was not, in general, an air of heightened concern from communities. Some, he said, appeared less inclined to change the existing rules than others.

Alty said the meeting also touched on the risk that complacency had set in among some residents after a summer with no reported cases of the virus.

"Having so few cases since April, folks were starting to get a bit lax and forget the rules," Alty said. "People are starting to see how quickly it could possibly spread if there was community transmission."

Yellowknife is not contemplating any immediate change in the municipality's pandemic response, she added, though digital contact tracing has been introduced at city facilities.

Earlier in the spring and summer, meetings between community leaders, the premier, and pandemic response officials were taking place every week.

However, they became less frequent as the territory reached October with no fresh cases of the virus. Whelly said a month or more may have occasionally passed between meetings.

Sunday's meeting came after the territory moved from five to nine confirmed COVID-19 cases within a week. It was organized through the N.W.T. Association of Communities.

Those attending – according to the territorial government – were Behchokǫ̀, Enterprise, Fort Good Hope, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson, Fort Providence, Fort Resolution, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Gametì, Hay River, Inuvik, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Łutselk’e, Norman Wells, Paulatuk, Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktuk, Tulita, Ulukhaktok, Wekweètì, Whatì, Yellowknife, and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

"Early in the onset of the pandemic, there were regular meetings with Indigenous and community governments," the premier's spokesperson said by email, confirming Sunday's meeting had taken place at comparatively little notice.

"Over the summer, the meetings were less frequent and there was a commitment to convene a meeting if there were additional cases."

Sarah Sibley contributed reporting.

Ollie Williams and Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio