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Health and social services minister Diane Thom declared a public health emergency over the COVID-19 threat March 18.

The declaration, recommended by Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, will be in effect until April 1.

It gives Kandola broad powers to respond to the epidemic, including legally-binding orders and travel restrictions, to “take any reasonable measure considered necessary to protect public health,” stated a government news release.

Kandola may now give legally binding orders to individuals and organizations, such as business, governments, agencies and nonprofits, it stated.

As a result, she can order “major changes” to travel into the territory, make individuals self-isolate, and, call business to put emergency measures in place, it stated.

While there have been no directives under the public health emergency, they would be based on what services the business provided and how it could potentially put the public at risk, Kandola told reporters Wednesday.

“We’re doing it now and quickly so we’re not faced with a complete shutdown of all businesses,” she said. 

She also may:

  •    authorize qualified people to provide additional aid and services as needed;
  •    expedite emergency licensing of additional health care providers;
  •    coordinate and provide for the delivery of medical services;
  •    procure and provide for the distribution of medical supplies and equipment across the     NWT

Kandola said in a statement that the decision was based off the “latest medical information across the country, and a careful consideration of the Northwest Territories’ unique situation.”

Public health emergencies may last up to 14 days, but if the threat remains Kandola can re-declare the emergency as often as necessary.

Her efforts are currently focusing on the next 60 days, which the news release described as the “most crucial” period in the territory’s response to the virus.

Also in the statement, Thom said “nothing is off-the-table” in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Health minister Diane Thom, left. and Premier Caroline Cochrane speak to reporters about the public health emergency at the legislative assembly on Wednesday.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Virus “inevitable” in NWT, Kandola says

Premier Caroline Cochrane told reporters on Wednesday that the government’s steps may seem “dramatic,” but were necessary to lessen the impact of the virus. Thom similarly said the actions weren’t “fearful,” but proactive and that tests were being speedily administered.

There have 153 test results received so far, all negative, as of Wednesday afternoon. There are another 119 pending. Transport challenges to Alberta are the cause behind the length between test and results, territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook said.

As Yukon and Nunavut both declared emergencies alongside NWT, Kandola said “speed trumps perfection” and that the best way forward was to exercise her authority. 

That can be key for remote communities, she said, where the government aims to expand virtual care through commercial apps to tamp down on travel.

Small communities with crowded households, and limited healthcare resources and nursing staff were in particular risk, she said. If COVID-19 is introduced in small communities, it could spread quickly, she said. 

In that case, A small number of cases could overwhelm capacity of NWT’s hospitals, she said. That meant having to slow the spread to avoid spreading resources too thin.

Cook, the territorial medical director, said there were six ICU beds at Stanton Territorial Hospital. There are also 13 ventilators, including ambulance transport ventilators. 

If the territory’s need overwhelms its ventilator capacity, residents would be able to use Alberta services, she said.  Similarly, the government is looking to expand its call-in capacity for concerned residents facing a significant backlog. 

Originally, GNWT looked to partner with Alberta 811 for assistance, but it was also overwhelmed. Currently, it’s aiming to increase the number of staff answering calls and expand to email.

As NWT prepares for what she called an “inevitable” appearance of the virus, Kandola advised residents to practice health guidelines and stay informed. 

“You don’t want to be the one person that introduces COVID-19 into a small community, with devastating consequences,” Kandola said.

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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