The town council of a remote Inuit community in northern Quebec said the region's public health authority has to go through the proper channels to approve gradual reopening measures — and not take any shortcuts that could jeopardize the community by allowing in COVID-19.
Nancy Etok, the deputy mayor of Kangiqsualujjuaq, a community of 1,000 on Ungava Bay, said council recently denied a request from the Nunavik Regional Board of Health to fly in workers from Montreal to do much-needed construction work at the local health clinic.
Etok says she was surprised when she got a call from the board's public health director May 14, asking if the village would welcome workers from the south the following Monday.
''We felt as though the decision to send unquarantined construction crews, with four days' notice, was really risky," Etok said.
Mayor Davidee Annanack said the workers would not have been subject to the usual 14-day quarantine imposed on all travellers before and after their arrival in Nunavik.
"It is difficult to understand that, all of a sudden, the same protocols and measures imposed by public health and public security don't apply to these construction people from the south," Annanack said in a written statement.
Nunavik has been largely successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19, with only 16 cases since the pandemic began. There have been no cases in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Etok said, and seeing a crew of workers land in the village would have been stressful for residents.
Tuberculosis also a priority
Most flights to Nunavik have been cancelled since April 2 — the only exceptions being those carrying health-care workers or other essential-service workers like police officers and patients requiring medical treatment.
Etok said the request to send in workers should have been submitted to the local committee in charge of deciding when and how Nunavik will reopen to others.
Public Health Director Marie Rochette said she had to go straight to the mayor's office with her request, circumventing the committee, because time is running out to renovate the local health clinic in order to install a new X-ray machine to detect tuberculosis..
Waiting for approval from the committee would have meant postponing the construction until the workers are next available — meaning the X-ray machine won't be installed until at least October,
"It was a decision I had to make," Rochette told CBC.
The plan had been to keep workers isolated from the rest of the community, she said.
Controlling tuberculosis outbreaks in Nunavik is a priority, she said. A 22-year-old resident of Kangiqsualujjuaq died of the disease in 2017, after TB resurfaced in the town. That led to an awareness campaign and mass TB screenings last year.
"Considering that it was for construction of something that will benefit the community and reduce the risk of TB, that's why we thought we could bring in these workers to do their work without doing the two-week quarantine down south."
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it all the more important to have an X-ray machine in the community, she said, since the symptoms of coronavirus and TB are similar, including dry cough.
"They need chest X-ray exams to rule out TB."
But the town council believes COVID-19 is a larger threat to the community than TB, and the mayor says it is their decision to make.
"The move made by health officials sounds like a return to the 1960s when government representatives treated northern communities as colonies unable to take care of themselves," said Annanack in his statement.