What the end of the COVID Secretariat will mean for the N.W.T.

The COVID Secretariat was set up in September of 2020 to manage the territory’s response to COVID-19. It's set to close down when the public health emergency ends on April 1.

About three quarters of secretariat workers' contracts expire on March 31

An N.W.T. transportation officer stops vehicles coming in and out of Enterprise, N.W.T, to let them know of a travel ban for non-residents into the territory in March of 2020. Territorial border patrol camps will clear out as part of the shutdown of the COVID Secretariat. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

When the COVID Secretariat shuts down at the end of this month dozens of workers's contracts will end, but the 811 phone line will remain.

That's according to government officials who this week gave Northwest Territories MLAs a little more insight into what the secretariat's closure will look like. 

"We are working on winding down the COVID Secretariat in keeping with the expected timing for ending the public health emergency" on April 1, Russell Neudorf, the secretariat's associate deputy minister, told the Legislative Assembly during budget deliberations on Wednesday.

He added that some of the division's activities will continue into April "just so that we can properly wrap things up."

The COVID Secretariat was set up in September of 2020 to manage the territory's response to COVID-19.

It's responsible for territorial border patrols, isolation centres and the enforcement of public health orders. It also runs ProtectNWT, which reviews travellers' self-isolation plans, and the 811 COVID information phone line.

But when the end of the public health emergency ends and public health orders are rescinded, the COVID Secretariat will no longer be necessary, Premier Caroline Cochrane said on Monday.

"It is now time to give residents the responsibility to manage their own risk tolerance and make their own choices," she said.

"The existence of the secretariat was intended to be temporary, and its closure was always anticipated."

The secretariat, which is headed by Cochrane, cost about $26.3 million in 2020-2021, and an estimated $34.6 million this fiscal year. 

Even though the division is set to dissolve in three weeks, there's still an estimated $11.9 million budgeted for secretariat operations in the upcoming fiscal year. 

The government says that's because certain functions will continue in order to deal with future outbreaks and variants of concern.

Dozens of staff expected to leave the government

Neudorf told MLAs that about 130 people work at the secretariat. The contracts for around three quarters of them expire on March 31. 

The remaining quarter are government employees who were transferred from other departments.

Russell Neudorf, associate deputy minister for the COVID Secretariat, in 2016. He told N.W.T. MLAs on Wednesday that the COVID Secretariat is winding down 'in keeping with the expected timing for ending the public health emergency' on April 1. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Neudorf said the secretariat is working with those departments to make sure these workers have a "proper landing spot" when their secretariat jobs end.

About a dozen secretariat employees' contracts have already ended. Neudorf said that happened when the requirement to isolate after travel was lifted and the need for isolation centres diminished. 

Border checkpoints shutting down

The secretariat's windup also means border patrol camps on Highway 1 at the Alberta border, and on the Dempster Highway at the Yukon border, will be dismantled and cleaned up with no "extraordinary costs," said Neudorf. 

The 811 phone line will remain active, but with reduced hours.

"We understand that 8-1-1 has generally been a useful service for the public to report the results of their tests and to get information about COVID generally," Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green said Wednesday. 

Wastewater surveillance will also continue, said Green.

"We've experienced good results from having wastewater surveillance in communities across the N.W.T. as an early warning sign that COVID is present in the population," she said. "So we plan to continue that program and have staff in [Municipal and Community Affairs] and [Environment and Natural Resources] run the program."

With the secretariat's shutdown, Green said, the health department expects its budget to shrink by an estimated $32.1 million.

A COVID Secretariat spokesperson told CBC on Thursday that some education and enforcement personnel will remain to help with localized public health emergencies.

Dawn Ostrem said the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer can issue "locally-focused public health orders" without declaring a territory-wide public health emergency. 

Ostrem said the government also plans to add "communications and policy support" to the health department, and increase capacity in the emergency management unit of the Municipal and Community Affairs department, to help with community outbreaks. 

The federal government will assist the territory as it adapts to living with endemic COVID-19 — the state in which the virus is present in the territory, but at a relatively stable level.

Green said Ottawa will continue to provide rapid antigen tests and vaccines. She also said the N.W.T. has asked for more federal money to help with its ongoing efforts to manage the virus.

73 tickets issued

Neudorf noted Wednesday that the territory has handed out about 1,400 verbal and written warnings for COVID-19 public health order violations, and 73 tickets.

He said the vast majority of people ticketed were fined about $1,700.

About a third of the tickets have been paid, another third are before the courts, and a third were dropped.

With files from Nicole Ireland


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