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N.W.T. premier, health officials defend policies in light of latest COVID-19 cases

After local leadership contradicted government policy to identify the location of the N.W.T.’s first COVID-19 case in a small community, the territory’s premier and top public health officials put on a show of unity.

Two new cases were confirmed Thursday, including first in small community

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook participated in the press conference on Saturday. (CBC)

The N.W.T.'s premier and top health officials doubled down on a government policy to not identify small communities with cases of COVID-19 in a press conference Saturday, just a day after local leadership in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., contradicted the policy to identify the location of the territory's first COVID-19 case in a small community.

"I know that people are concerned for their health, especially the people in small communities. I also know that people want to know if COVID-19 is in their community," Cochrane said in a statement Saturday morning. "I hear that concern and respect it."

But "knowing what community COVID-19 is in will not make you safer," she said. "What will make you safer is respecting the orders of the chief public health officer."

Health Minister Diane Thom, appearing remotely from Inuvik, echoed the premier's statements.

"If we're acting differently simply because the virus is in a particular community, we're not doing our job," said Thom. "The only way we can get ahead of it is by acting like we have it, and changing our behaviours 100 per cent of the time."

Cochrane appeared alongside Thom, chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's medical director Dr. Sarah Cook, and Ivan Russell, director of public safety.

As of Saturday morning, the territory had four confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one recovery. That includes two new cases identified Thursday evening, including the territory's first outside Yellowknife or Inuvik.

A release sent Thursday night said an individual had violated public health orders to self-isolate in designated centres and continued on to their home in an unspecified "small community."

The territorial government does not identify the location of confirmed cases when they appear in small communities, to protect patient privacy. But on Friday, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh Steve Norn confirmed online posts made by Deninu Kue First Nation that the individual was in Fort Resolution and had since been medevacked to Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.

Watch the full press conference here:

The N.W.T.'s premier and top health officials doubled down on a government policy to not identify small communities with cases of COVID-19 in a press conference Saturday, just a day after local leadership in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., contradicted the policy to identify the location of the territory's first COVID-19 case in a small community. 43:06

Health authorities 'still investigating' penalties for COVID-19 patient

Kandola said the territory was "still investigating" whether the individual who travelled to Fort Resolution in violation of public health orders could face penalties.

She brushed off criticism from local leadership in Fort Resolution that they were left in the dark after a case was identified in their community.

Which communities are impacted "should make no difference in our response," she said.

"The virus is here. It will spread," she said. "It doesn't matter where you are."

Kandola said she is "bound by oath" to protect patient confidentiality, and protecting those who test positive for COVID-19 is "one of our big concerns."

When patients' identities are made public, she said, "they are abused, shunned, and threatened, and sometimes their families."

"We've seen it for decades with tuberculosis," she said, "[and] we've seen it today" with COVID-19.

Kandola said anyone found to be making a threat to persons or property due to COVID-19 "will be met with enforcement."

But she also said her office would continue to identify individuals who, by violating public health orders, put people at risk.

"If a person is not following the rules, and there's evidence they have become a danger to the community, that will be shared publicly," she said.

On March 28, Kandola publicly shamed a reality TV star, "Pike" Mike Harrison, who had travelled to a remote homestead in the N.W.T. in violation of travel restrictions and gave interviews to local media about the experience.

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson is requesting the government impose a lockdown on travel between the territory's most remote communities. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Community leadership urges tighter restrictions

Yet some leaders say the territory's restrictions have not yet gone far enough.

Jackie Jacobson, the MLA representing the territory's northernmost and most isolated communities, argued that the government should prohibit all non-essential travel "into and between communities" in a release sent Friday night.

"There are no respirators in the communities and no additional health care staff have been hired for small communities," a quote attributed to Jacobson reads.

"Any residents returning to their home communities at this point in time should be required to produce written medical clearance. No one else should be allowed in. Period."

Those restrictions, if put in place, would mirror "lockdowns" imposed in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec last week, restricting all travel between communities.

"We cannot afford to allow the spread of this virus into the communities," Jacobson is quoted as saying. "If this happens, lives will be lost."

Premier Cochrane suggested several times in the past week that tougher enforcement and tighter restrictions were on the way, but failed to provide specifics in Saturday's press conference.

Sales of liquor and cannabis have also proven a flashpoint between the territorial and community governments.

In a video Friday evening, MLA Norn said he would be aggressively lobbying the territorial government for new restrictions on liquor sales to curb partying in his community.

That was echoed by Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, who said the premier was considering a motion from his organization to restrict liquor and cannabis sales.

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, who oversees the territory's liquor and cannabis commission, told Cabin Radio she was entertaining taking a case-by-case approach to closing or restricting sales at the territory's six liquor stores.

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