Schools stay open as Yellowknife area sees clampdown to prevent healthcare system from being overwhelmed

·4 min read
Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife on Aug. 28, 2020. Schools are staying open despite an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, and concern about the healthcare system's ability to keep up.  (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)
Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife on Aug. 28, 2020. Schools are staying open despite an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, and concern about the healthcare system's ability to keep up. (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief medical officer of health, has re-imposed limits on gatherings and shut down some indoor activities for 14 days in Yellowknife, Ndilo, Dettah and Behchokǫ̀ in order to preserve a vulnerable healthcare system.

Starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, households will once again be limited to five people from outside the household to a maximum of 10; outdoor gatherings will be restricted to 50 people, with physical distancing; and indoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people, with physical distancing. People who can work from home are advised to do so.

Non-essential travel is not recommended.

Steve Silva/CBC
Steve Silva/CBC

Businesses, organizations, bars and restaurants who want to have more than 25 people indoors may revert to previous plans approved by the chief public health officer.

Schools and essential services will remain open, Kandola said. She said that masking and classroom bubbles in elementary schools and vaccine uptake in middle and high schools are sufficient measures to prevent the spread of the virus in schools. The temporary shutdown of high risk, indoor sports activities is designed to prevent students from different schools mixing and potentially spreading the virus.

The news come one day after the territory announced an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, with 19 people and 10 employees in the sector affected.

Hospital upping ICU capacity

Health Minister Julie Green said that the territory is "approaching a pivotal moment in the territorial health-care system's ability to respond to COVID-19 and the related community outbreaks."

Twelve people have been hospitalized in the latest outbreak, adding pressure to a system already facing staffing shortages.

Stanton Territorial Hospital is taking steps to meet the rising caseload.

The hospital is increasing the number of beds in its intensive care unit from four to six, and opening three more inpatient beds, said Kim Riles, CEO of the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

Some elective surgeries and procedures will be postponed to preserve beds and staffing.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

Riles stressed that the authority will maintain access to urgent and emergency care, including cancer services, and urged people to continue to seek this care.

She also described the situation in smaller communities, which are also facing pressures. "Many community health centres are operating under reduced or emergency services due to staff shortages or to focus on outbreak management activities."

A public notice posted online offers more detail on which services will continue.

"Our health system is not yet overwhelmed but we are sitting on a critical precipice," Riles said.

What about Alberta?

Riles said that so far, no N.W.T. COVID-19 patients have been sent to Alberta for further treatment during the latest outbreak, though N.W.T. patients are routinely sent there for care not available in the North.

Alberta is currently experiencing a fourth wave that's causing "very high case counts and rapidly increasing hospitalizations," Riles said.

She said she's been assured that Alberta will continue to treat N.W.T. patients with the same priority as Alberta patients. She referred to capacity issues within Alberta as a "related but separate topic," and said N.W.T. patients will retain access to whatever services Alberta provides its residents.

Riles said that N.W.T. patients with scheduled appointments in Alberta may receive a call informing them that those appointments have been cancelled or postponed as the province seeks to reduce the load on its healthcare system.

Premier Caroline Cochrane and Health Minister Julie Green joined Kandola and the CEO of the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, Kim Riles, in an online press briefing Wednesday morning.

Sahtu outbreak contained

As of noon Tuesday, there were 114 active cases in the territory, with 64 in Yellowknife, 25 in Fort Good Hope, nine in Norman Wells, six in Délı̨nę, six in Tulita, two in Fort Providence and one each Gameti and Hay River/K'atl'odeeche First Nation.

N.W.T. Office of the Chief Public Health Officer/CBC
N.W.T. Office of the Chief Public Health Officer/CBC

In addition to the outbreak among homeless people in Yellowknife, two elementary school classrooms were shut down in the capital on Saturday after two children tested positive. On Monday, a public exposure noticed was issued for the courthouse, though health officials have warned that all public settings in the city are now potential exposure sites.

Norman Wells is also experiencing community transmission.

The Sahtu outbreak has otherwise now been contained, Kandola said.

"If Behchokǫ̀, Dettah, Ndilo, Yellowknife residents make the same sacrifices, we will see the same results here."

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