Public health emergency declared in N.W.T.

Northwest Territories Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom declared a territory-wide public health emergency Wednesday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The emergency is in effect from March 18 to April 1

N.W.T. Minister of Health and Social Services has declared a public health emergency for the territory. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Northwest Territories Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom declared a territory-wide public health emergency Wednesday in response to the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a Wednesday press release, the public health emergency is in effect from March 18 to April 1.

"This is the right step to take to protect all Northwest Territories residents from the spread of COVID-19," Thom said of the public health emergency. "Nothing is off-the-table when it comes to keeping our residents safe, and our health-care system strong."

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any of the territories as of Wednesday afternoon. In the N.W.T., 153 tests had been performed and results are pending on another 119 tests. N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said it can take up to seven days to get test results back from Alberta.

Just a couple [of] cases could overwhelm their capacity.- Dr. Kami Kandola, N.W.T. chief public health officer

"We have to do everything possible to slow the introduction of COVID-19 into the North," Kandola said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "Even though we have hospitals in the regional centres, just a couple cases could overwhelm their capacity."

She said the virus could spread quickly in a small community.

"Our isolated communities are at particular vulnerability," said Kandola, noting crowded households and health centres with just a couple of nurses in some of the smaller communities.

The news release says the public health emergency was made upon Kandola's recommendation.

It means Kandola will have expanded powers to:

  • Authorize qualified people to provide additional aid and services as needed.
  • Expedite emergency licensing of additional health care providers.
  • Make orders and provide directions restricting or prohibiting travel to or from anywhere in the territory.
  • Co-ordinate and provide for the delivery of medical services.
  • Procure and provide for the distribution of medical supplies and equipment across the territory.

Public health emergencies can last up to 14 days under the act, but if the risk to public health remains, the minister may declare a public health emergency as often as necessary, the release states.

Legally-binding orders on table

The territory's Public Health Act says that under a public health emergency, the chief public health officer may "take any reasonable measures considered necessary to protect public health."

That includes making legally-binding orders to individuals and organizations.

"It's everyone's civic duty to protect others," said Kandola. "You don't want to be the one person who introduced COVID-19 into a small community." 

The public health emergency means Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, will have expanded powers. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The news release says Kandola is focusing on controlling the spread over the next 60 days, "the most crucial period," as the territory works to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Sarah Cook, territorial medical director of health with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority,  said there are six intensive care unit beds in the territory — all of which are at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife. There are 13 ventilators.

Cook said intensive care specialists in Alberta are ready to provide support if needed.

While many services in N.W.T. have reduced or ceased operations, air ambulance services have "not decreased at all," said Cook, and are prepared with extra personal protective equipment to keep workers and patients safe during transport.

Cook emphasized that people experiencing respiratory symptoms should phone ahead, before they go to a health centre in person.

"We are working around the clock — public health, nurses, doctors, and frontline staff — to address the spread of COVID-19," Kandola said, adding the territory has "one of the most aggressive testing regimes in the country."

Kandola said if people are sick they should stay home, avoid contact with others, and call their local health centre. She's also reminding people to wash their hands often and keep at least two metres between others.

Yukon and Nunavut officials also declared public health emergencies related to COVID-19 Wednesday.