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At the bottom of this column is a list of more than 60 questions to the territorial government dating back to March 23 that as of Friday had not been answered.

On March 23 we asked the government about Child and Family Services: How was it dealing with emergency apprehensions during the pandemic? Are these children still being sent to live with foster families? What if a child shows symptoms of Covid-19?

Never got an answer.

On April 15, after receiving a tip, we asked the government if it was true staff at the downtown sobering centre, currently quarantining about 30 high-risk clients, were also working at the GNWT-run day shelter set up at the Salvation Army for people not isolating.

It’s important because many outbreaks in Canada, particularly at nursing homes, reportedly occurred after staff were found working in multiple locations and thus spreading the virus between facilities.

We’re still waiting for an answer.

I’m not going to deny that these are challenging times for government workers, including communications officials. But this is quite the pile of unanswered questions at a time people, more than ever, want answers.

Many of our questions come from the public, several from people who already know the answer but are afraid of using their names for fear of “retribution” from the government. Is that the kind of society we’re building for ourselves post-pandemic – one where people are too afraid to ask questions and even if they do, the government won’t answer?

I emailed the list of unanswered questions and other observations Friday to Shaun Dean, director of cabinet communications. He promptly answered.

I observed that since the pandemic began, reporters must send questions that seem to go “into a black hole and hope something comes out the other side.”

The GNWT’s Press Secretary’s Office, as Dean helpfully advised, is a long-standing institution that has since been re-organized to deal with all media questions. I call it a nebulous void because you don’t know who you’re sending questions to, nor who will answer – if they do at all.

The rationale, now that most GNWT staff are working from home, is to provide a one-stop shop for all media questions which can then be filtered to the responsible department for an answer.

In theory, this makes sense. I understand the complicating factor with so many people working from home but as our list of unanswered or late-answered questions shows, it’s rather unclear who is taking responsibility for the questions when you send them in. It’s kind of like sitting down at a restaurant where none of waiters have name tags and you’re not certain who will take your order or bring back your meal.

Before the pandemic, reporters would go to the appropriate government department and ask the department’s communications officer for an answer. A real person, with a real job title and a direct chain of custody from question to answer.

Dean confessed that things haven’t gone as smoothly as he would’ve liked and promised people answering the questions would put their full names to them for attribution in our stories. As one long-time Northerner to another who surely realizes what’s at stake, I take him at his word.

And as of Monday afternoon, I can happily report some of these outstanding questions — Stanton preparedness; what’s going on with the old Stanton site? Approvals for locally-produced hand sanitizer; and the status of grocery stores over Easter weekend (a little late but whatever) – have been answered. We’ll get these answers into stories as soon as possible.

But there is still a ways to go. I was surprised to see a recent comment by a senior communications official with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment on a Facebook post by Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson. Rylund was pointing to a statement on his website about the need for more straightforward communications from the GNWT. Earlier this month, he had criticized the government for not putting names on answers to questions from reporters.

The GNWT comms officer called the MLA’s statement “A bit ranty,” “unsubstantiated,” and not “helpful in building trust and cooperation during a pandemic.”

Johnson was delicate in his response, no doubt because he must think about voters.

I would’ve asked, “Is that your opinion or your department’s?”

 

Unanswered questions (as of Friday, April 17)

March 23

Child and Family services during pandemic

From reporter Brendan Burke

Good afternoon.

I’m hoping to learn how Child and Family Services is addressing COVID-19, and whether or not there have been disruptions as a result of widening health safety measures.

1) Have new health safety measures been introduced in terms of screening both apprehended children and foster parents/families alike? If so, what has been implemented?

 

2) Has COVID-19 led to any disruptions related to placements, emergency or otherwise? We are, of course, seeing more stringent screening across the board. If an apprehended child shows symptoms, will they still be placed in an emergency placement? If not, where would the child go/stay.

Just trying to get a sense of how COVID-19 is impacting day-to-day operations.

 

April 1

Precautions on entering Stanton Territorial Hospital (Answered April 20)

From reporter Brendan Burke

Please walk me through the process/protocol of patients/people entering Stanton Territorial Hospital amid enhanced COVID-19 precautions.

  • Emergency Room:
  • For people entering the emergency room with COVID-19 symptoms, what is the protocol? Are they allowed to walk through triage? Is there a specific area inside Stanton they go to that’s isolated from other patients in the building? Can people with COVID-19 symptoms be turned away and asked to follow up with health professionals at home? In what circumstances would that happen?
  • For people entering the emergency room without COVID-19 symptoms, what is the protocol? How are they screened to ensure they aren’t showing symptoms? What questions are they asked in terms of travel, how they live with, if their family or roommates have recently traveled? What answers would cause them to be turned away?
  • General entrance: 
  • Are people still being allowed to visit family and friends being treated for non COVID-19 illnesses?
  • Are they the same questions asked/screening carried out?

 

  1. If a person entering the emergency room is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms but is still in dire need or medical attention related to another health issue, what happens then?
  2. Is Stanton currently capable of housing a large number of COVID-19 positive patients in self-isolated areas in the event of an outbreak? Where in the building would they be self-isolated and how many patients could these self-isolation areas support?
  3. Is there a possibility additional space outside Stanton would have to be secured to house patients who need to be self-isolated from other patients? If so, has such a space been secured?
  4. How many protective face masks are currently in stock at Stanton Territorial Hospital?
  5. How many protective gloves?
  6. How many protective gowns?
  7. How many ventilators are currently at Stanton?
  8. Does the health department feel this PPE stock and ventilator stock is enough/adequate to meet the demands of a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Yellowknife?
  9. Is the hospital receiving a steady supply or has high demand for PPE products globally caused shortages?

 

April 8

 

Friendship centre funding during the pandemic

From reporter Nick Pearce

I was hoping to put in a request about the following motion, adopted by the Committee on Friday April 3, 2020.

“(MLAs) recommend that the Government provide stabilization funding to the Friendship Centres to allow them to organize and support community responses to the crisis, and to access where possible Federal funding for food bank and northern community food security support as announced by the Prime Minister.”

I had the following questions:

  1. What’s cabinet’s response to this call?
  2. Minister Thompson, as a regular MLA once said of friendship centres, “”I think it is a good investment. What my big thing is, is I would like to see it annually. I think that this organization does some really good work, and we should be doing it annually.” Considering this quote, what are the ministers thoughts on asking his cabinet colleagues to pursue this proposal?
  3. What timeline would the government consider for the proposed funding?
  4. What other food security efforts are underway at this time?

Grocery store closures over Easter holiday (Answered April 20)

From reporter Brendan Burke

The Ontario government has moved to close grocery store in the province on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Are there any plans to enact similar measures or will that be up to grocers across the NWT?

 

April 9

Status of Old Stanton Hospital (Answered April 20)

From reporter Brendan Burke

I understand you won’t be identifying additional spaces secured by NTHSS to store medical supplies, but I am wondering about the old Stanton Territorial Hospital.

Given its proximity to the new hospital, has the old Stanton Territorial Hospital been entered into contingency plans? As it stands, with renovations, could the old site facilitate/support patients if needed and is that option being considered?

 

April 10

Repurposed N95 masks for medical staff

From reporter Simon Whitehouse

 

  1. Is Stanton Hospital discussing/considering reprocessing N95 masks?
  2. If so, will the reprocessed masks filter airbourne particles adequately?
  3. Will the reprocessed masks introduce harmful chemicals into the ‘wearers’ airway due to reprocessing of chemicals?
  4. What studies have been done to prove reprocessing chemicals are safe to inhale?
  5. If Stanton is discussing/considering repurposing masks, can staff refuse to work with an N95 mask that has been reprocessed?

 

Alcohol prohibition in small communities

From reporter Nick Pearce

I was just hoping to confirm the list of communities pursuing temporary prohibition orders: Aklavik, and Tulita are producing orders, while Tuktoyaktuk ans Tsiigetchic’s are already in place.

 

April 12

‘Pike’ Mike Affair

From reporter Simon Whitehouse

  1. Last month we ran a story involving Mike Harrison and an

investigation that followed as a result of going straight to his cabin

instead of self-isolating. Have there been any charges laid or what are the updates of that

investigation?

  1. Have there been any charges or fines laid to date – particularly

since the enforcement task force began operating this weekend?

  1. Have there been any reports/are there expected to be reports on how

the task force did in enforcement duties this initial weekend? What does

that look like?

  1. Will there be updates for media on charges laid as they happen?

 

April 13

Situation at the Yellowknife Airport

From reporter Blair McBride

 What is the situation at the airport in Yellowknife ?
How many flights come in and go out each day?
How many passengers have been flying out and coming in this month?
What were the passenger numbers like last month?
What are the health protocols for air travelers boarding flights? And for travelers coming back into Yellowknife?

Point-of-care tests

From reporter Blair McBride

Will the availability of the new kits in the NWT replace the sending of test swabs to the lab in Alberta? If some swab testing will still be done, where will it take place?

How much will the Spartan Cube and GeneXpert cost?

How many of the units will be available here once they arrive?

Dr. Cook said in that CBC article that the Spartan Cubes will be sent to hospitals and health centres in Fort Smith, Inuvik, Hay River and Yellowknife. Will they be sent exclusively to those places? Will they be sent to any remote communities?

 

Medical residencies for returning students

From reporter Blair McBride

In terms of medical students doing their residencies in the NWT, I know that two students are due to come to Yellowknife in July to do their residencies, and that one residency scheduled to happen in Inuvik didn’t work out because of Covid.

Will hospitals elsewhere in the NWT be hosting residents? For example, at the hospital in Hay River or Fort Smith?

 

April 14

 

Truck drivers refused service at grocery store

From reporter Blair McBride

I heard that long-haul truckers delivering goods to the Trevor’s Independent supermarket in Yellowknife are not allowed to enter the store to shop for food and use the bathroom based on the policy of the GNWT.

Is that true?

Is this policy going to be applied across the board to the Co-op store and the Glen’s Independent, and for other stores where truckers drop off their products?

 

April 15

Staff-sharing between sobering centre and GNWT-run day shelter

From reporter Brendan Burke

I’m inquiring about employees working at the temporary, GNWT-run day shelter at the Salvation Army brought on by COVID-19. Like other jurisdictions across the country, it’s not uncommon for shelter workers to also work at different shelters in the area, mainly as a way to make an affordable living. Yellowknife is no exception.

Ontario, in an effort to catch up with actions already undertaken in B.C., has moved to restrict long-term care home workers to one facility in the wake of a number of outbreaks. In doing so, the provinces hope to halt the spread by ensuring workers are not going back and forth to different facilities where vulnerable people live.

We’re told from a credible source that some employees at the quarantined Sobering Centre/Day Shelter may be working at the temporary, GNWT-run day shelter at the Salvation Army; and/or the Salvation Army in general (at the usual night shelter).

 

  1. Are some employees at the temporary, GNWT-run day shelter at the Salvation Army who are also working at the Sobering Center/Day Shelter and/or the Salvation Army in general (at the usual night shelter); and/or Stanton Territorial Hospital?
  2. If so, have they all been identified by the Health Authority. How many employees are doing so?
  3. If there are workers going back and forth, how is the Health Authority addressing this health issue in order to protect both its employees and the vulnerable people it’s serving ? Do these workers face enhanced screening measures when returning to work for a shift?
  4. If the Health Authority considers responding to this a personnel matter, is the government considering enacting measures like the aforementioned provinces to ensure workers serving vulnerable people aren’t going back and forth from one shelter to another? If these measures aren’t being considered, why not?

Students returning to NWT and new CERB rules

From reporter Blair McBride

 With more college and university students possibly returning to the NWT soon because of lack of work elsewhere, how does the GNWT feel about the changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit that were announced today?

Its terms were expanded to include people earning $1,000 a month or less, people who have lost their EI or whose EI was running out and people who rely on seasonal work.

Locally made sanitary products (answered April 20)

From reporter Nick Pearce

Did the chief public health officer approve 62 Degrees North’s hand sanitizer for sale?

What’s the process for the chief public health officer to approving products for sale?

 

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Mike Bryant

Mike W. Bryant is the managing editor for NNSL Media. He started working for Northern News Services as a general news reporter in 1999. He is the recipient of numerous national and provincial journalism...

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