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Military, travel, and enforcement: N.W.T.'s top docs, premier, take your questions on COVID-19

Premier Caroline Cochrane, N.W.T.'s chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook took your questions live Friday morning.

Premier, doctors took questions about territory's 2 new confirmed cases and next steps on Friday

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook took your questions live on The Trailbreaker Friday morning. (CBC)

With the COVID-19 pandemic changing rapidly from day to day — sometimes hour to hour — it's natural to have questions.

The N.W.T.'s chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola joined CBC host Loren McGinnis live between 7 and 8 a.m. MT on Friday for a call-in show, answering any questions you might have about the pandemic and the territory's response.

The show ran live on CBC Radio One and was streamed on CBC NWT's Facebook page.

Premier Caroline Cochrane joined Kandola between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Territorial medial director Dr. Sarah Cook took questions between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Late Thursday night, two new cases of COVID-19 were announced in the N.W.T., bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the territory to four.

Kandola and Cochrane discussed details of the newly-announced cases, including the fact that one of the patients has been hospitalized.

Read below for other highlights from Friday morning's Q&A.

Do all the territory's hospitals have adequate medical supplies to combat the pandemic?

Kandola said that hospitals in the territory have been in pandemic planning mode for weeks. That includes a checklist of supplies to gather, including personal protective equipment.

Though hospitals continue to gather supplies, Kandola was confident that hospitals are adequately outfitted to deal with the current stage of the pandemic.

"We have been planning for this pandemic weeks before we [confirmed] the first case, and this planning is ongoing," she said.

Will the N.W.T. step up its enforcement of travel restrictions?

The Northwest Territories announced on March 20 that its borders would be closed. However, there have been several reports and concerns that people are still finding ways to skirt the order.

When asked if the territory would be stepping up its enforcement, Premier Cochrane was adamant. 

"Absolutely," she said. "We are looking at enforcement right across all departments at this time."

An officer conducts a roadside check just outside of Enterprise, N.W.T., on Highway 1 in March. Borders into the N.W.T. have been closed to non-residents, with a few exceptions, for almost two weeks. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"It's not that we want to penalize people. It's that people need to realize how serious this is," said Cochrane, noting that if fining individuals who break the order is what it takes, that's what will be done.

Kandola said that traffic to the territory has slowed considerably. The first weekend that the travel restrictions were introduced, she said, over 1,000 travellers returned to the territory. Now, they're seeing about 50 people per day arriving in the N.W.T. through airports or border crossings.

She noted that the last three cases confirmed in the territory all included people who have been following self-isolation plans, stressing the importance of doing so for the safety of N.W.T. residents.

What is the N.W.T. doing to identify people who may be asymptomatic carriers?

Cook said that while new research is coming out every day, the evidence around asymptomatic transmission "is actually still not very strong."

However, she said that evidence around presymptomatic transmission — where someone can transmit COVID-19 before they begin showing symptoms, rather than someone who does not show symptoms at all — is much stronger.

That doesn't mean you can go to the drive-thru and be within three feet of the cashier.- Dr. Kami Kandola

Cook said that the N.W.T. remains in a containment strategy, meaning that they are testing anyone who is reported to have risk factors, including symptoms or travelling outside of the territory or country.

"We're actually swabbing at the highest rate in Canada right now," she said.

What measures is the government taking to enforce the public health order?

Kandola said that the territorial government is currently in the process of expanding their "health officer designation" to other departments, giving more officials the ability to enforce the public health order that includes bans on large gatherings and physical distancing measures.

"We are receiving complaints, and they're being escalated," she said. "We're expanding the number of people that can provide enforcement, so we're expanding health officer designation to other departments, including wildlife officers."

Kandola added that the government is looking into additional protective measures for front-line workers, including providing personal protective equipment to employers.

She encouraged people to report breaches of the order to 1-833-378-8297, or by emailing protectnwt@gov.nt.ca, so that the territorial government can track incidents and enforce it.

Will the military be included in the N.W.T. response?

On Thursday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that the government is looking at a number of responses to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, including deploying the military to do air evacuations to field hospitals.

Cook said the N.W.T. government is "already in contact" with the military, and continues to share and update plans with them.

However, "we are not there right now," she said, in regards to the military being utilized in the territory.

The territory currently has the ability to respond to the situation as it stands, said Cook, using its own transportation plans. In order to keep it that way, she said, it falls on residents to behave responsibly, using physical distancing and washing their hands.

"It really is up to all of us to be able to contain the spread of this virus, so that it remains at a rate that we can manage ourselves," she said.

Can people in self-isolation go outside?

Last week, the federal government imposed a strict new quarantine order that required anyone returning from out of Canada to self-isolate for 14 days — an order that bars any time outside, Kandola said, though she noted she does not have enforcement power, as it is a federal order.

For people who return to the N.W.T. who come from other parts of Canada, "we have allowed them to go for walks, we've allowed them to go outside," she said, but noted that strict physical distancing rules must be followed.

"That doesn't mean you can go to the drive-thru and be within three feet of the cashier," she said. "If you go out for a walk, if you walk your dog, maintain six feet."

Written by Garrett Hinchey, based on a call-in show hosted by Loren McGinnis

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