Nunavut government imposes 24-hour security quarantine on northerners holed up in Winnipeg hotel

A few dozen people waiting to go home to Nunavut are under strict self-isolation orders in a Winnipeg hotel that they aren't allowed to leave and where they remain under 24/7 security surveillance.

Mandatory 14-day quarantine for residents returning home enforced by Nunavut government as safety measure

A security guard sits on a chair in the hallway at a Winnipeg hotel where the movements of Nunavut residents are restricted and being monitored around the clock. The Nunavut government is enforcing the 14-day isolation before letting them return home due to COVID-19 concerns. (Supplied)

A few dozen people waiting to go home to Nunavut are under strict self-isolation orders in a Winnipeg hotel that they aren't allowed to leave unescorted and where they remain under 24/7 security surveillance.

Angel Aksawnee, her mother and others from Nunavut are among those under isolation. They say they can't leave the room without permission and a security escort.

Angel hasn't been tested for COVID-19, though her mother was because she had pneumonia.

"We feel like we're treated worse than inmates and people in prison," said Aksawnee, who travelled with her mother from Baker Lake, Nunavut, to Winnipeg for medical treatment recently.

After her mother was discharged from hospital Tuesday, the pair and others began 14 days of self-isolation in a Winnipeg hotel.

All out-of-territory residents must undergo two weeks of isolation before returning due to measures implemented by the Nunavut government Tuesday aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 to the territory.

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For those in Winnipeg hoping to head home, that means waiting out the isolation period in a government-designated hotel. Security is monitoring residents night and day to ensure they don't leave, though they are allowed outside with a guard escort.

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"The monitoring is one measure to help ensure Nunavummiut return home in a safe and timely fashion," Chris Puglia, a Nunavut government Department of Health spokesperson, said in a statement.

"The security component isn't being done due to a lack of trust, but for reporting purposes to ensure the government can be as transparent as possible with the public that those returning to Nunavut are low risk of bringing COVID-19 with them."

Due to the nature of housing, availability of health care and other social determinants of health in remote northern communities, some worry that if the virus emerges in Nunavut, the impact could be devastating beyond what's happening in densely populated urban areas to the south.

"These [security and isolation] measures were also frequently requested by Nunavummiut who were concerned about the government continuing to allow travel into the territory," Puglia said.

Patients moved

Angel said she and her mother recognize COVID-19 should be taken seriously, and that's why they elected to begin self-isolating at the HSC Canad Inns hotel on Tuesday, when her mother was discharged.

What's been inconvenient and frustrating, she said, is that they already had been self-isolating for several days when the government moved them to the new hotel and forced them to restart the process.

The Kivalliq Inuit Centre, located on Burnell Street in Winnipeg, helps provide boarding and overflow hotel accommodations for patients from Nunavut who are flown into Manitoba for medical treatment. (Google Maps)

Winnipeg boarding or overflow hotel accommodations for Nunavut patients and their escorts are typically handled by Kivalliq Inuit Centre.

But early last week, the organization learned the Nunavut government would take over the care of its patients, Kivalliq operations manager Ainsley Bishop said.

Bishop estimates 20 to 30 patients were moved from the Canad Inns hotel at Health Sciences Centre to a government-designated Hilton Hotel late last week.

The Nunavut government assumed responsibility for the patients, including taking care of food, laundry and transport, if necessary, Bishop said, and Kivalliq is no longer involved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated quickly, but Kivaaliq could have better prepared its patients had it known sooner about government plans to move and monitor those people under strict conditions, Bishop said.

'It would be catastrophic'

What makes the measures particularly strict is that patients are under round-the-clock surveillance and aren't allowed to come and go as they please, Bishop said.

"I feel really badly for our patients and escorts that are in this situation, being told, sort of relatively out of the blue, that this is what their life is going to be for two weeks."

She is of two minds about the measures, which apply even for people who haven't been tested and don't show respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

"In many ways it feels unfair. The other side of that is, should COVID get to Nunavut, it would be catastrophic — completely — due to the close living conditions in communities, and there are many at-risk people."

There are currently no known cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut, a government spokesperson said Monday morning.

"Their determination is to keep it that way," Bishop said.

"I think they're doing what they think is right to ensure that that remains the case. That being said, it is definitely more of a stringent policy than I've ever seen."

'We ask for patience'

In a statement on Monday, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said his government is trying to improve self-isolation for people in the south.

"This situation has not been smooth, but pulling all this together so quickly is not easy," he said in a statement. "Safety is our Number 1 priority, but we ask for patience as we sort all this out."

Aksawnee said at first, the wave of patients moved to the self-isolation hotel felt they were being treated poorly by hotel staff and security. That's since improved, she said.

Still, it's depressing being away from home during a global pandemic, she said, and she misses eating caribou.

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With files from Hilary Bird