How Whatì got from 33 COVID-19 cases to just 1 in under a month

After experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak that saw the number of cases peak at 33 in the community of about 470, Whatì now only has one case, and a containment order for the community is about to be lifted.

'Congratulations, Whatì. Sometimes our smallest communities lead the way,' said Dr. Kami Kandola

Alfonz Nitsiza, chief of Whatì, N.W.T., said constantly talking and listening with community members went a long way in making sure people respected the public health measures during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Mark Rendell/CBC)

When N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola delivered her opening remarks at a news conference earlier this week, she started off, for once, by sharing some good news.

She congratulated the community of Whatì, a First Nations community in the North Slave Region of the Northwest Territories, along with its government and leadership.

"The risk of COVID-19 spread within that community has dropped substantially," she said.

A first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Tłı̨chǫ community of about 470 on Sept. 10. The next day, Kandola issued a containment order. Residents who had symptoms had to isolate, they couldn't gather, inside or outside, with anyone they didn't live with, essential businesses were limited to having 10 people inside, and non-essential businesses and schools were ordered closed.

The number of cases continued to rise for a week, until they peaked at 33 on Sept. 17. Slowly, the numbers went down. Nevertheless, on Sept. 25, Kandola extended the containment order until this Saturday.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, congratulated the community of Whatì for reducing its number of COVID-19 cases. She said she will not extend the containment order, which expires end of day Saturday for the community. (Steve Silva/CBC)

By Sept. 27, the number of cases went down to four until Monday when only one case was reported.

"I have no intention of renewing the containment order in that community," said Kandola at the news conference.

"Congratulations, Whatì. Sometimes our smallest communities lead the way."

'We can't let our guard down'

Whatì Chief Alfonz Nitsiza said it's good news that there's only one case in the community right now and that the containment order will expire at the end of the day Saturday.

"But, we can't let our guard down," he said.

"Cases are rising around us close to home, and so we have just [to] continue to do what we're doing, just stay home and do social distancing and washing our hands and everything and keep talking to people, you know, stay safe," he said.

The neighbouring community of Behchokǫ̀, where cases continue to rise on a daily basis, is experiencing an outbreak.

Nitsiza said when COVID-19 first appeared in his community, people were caught off guard.

"It came so suddenly," he said. "We didn't have any case, and then it just went right up."

Constantly talking and listening

He said they had a council meeting right away to discuss how they were going to handle the situation.

Council decided to get security personnel to go around the community and let people know there was an outbreak and that they should stay home.

Whatì, N.W.T., experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in which the number of cases peaked at 33 in mid-September and has dropped to one since Monday. (Emily Blake/CBC)

"We were trying to tell people that we can get out of this. You know, if we just follow the medical order," said Nitsiza.

"We were trying to do everything we can together as a community and talking to each other, listening and caring for each other. But, I think that really worked well. People stayed home, kept their distance."

He added the community talked about how elders in the past would have dealt with a situation like this.

"Constantly talking [with people.] I think that goes a long way. So I thing we've been doing that."

Vaccination rate increased

Nitsiza said people in the community were constantly encouraged to get vaccinated, and they responded.

The number of people vaccinated in the community has "gone up quite a bit now. Most of the community members get their shots," he said.

According to the N.W.T. government's COVID-19 website, 69 per cent of the population 12 and over in Whatì are fully vaccinated and 79 per cent have had one dose.

He said he knows some people still don't believe the vaccine works.

"That's sad because the only way to get out of this is through vaccination for everybody," said Nitsiza.

"People need to listen and help one another. Talk to elders, call them and see how they're doing at home and that's what we've been doing. It's worked for us."

Written by Michel Proulx with files from Lawrence Nayally