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N.W.T. health officials brace for increase in COVID-19-like cases as fall approaches

Amid a surge in travellers, and colder weather forcing residents indoors, public health authorities are bracing for an increase in complaints and questions to its information line.

Chief public health officer, enforcement chief took questions at press conference Friday

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, gave an update of COVID-19 during a Friday news conference. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Amid a surge in travellers, and colder weather forcing residents indoors, public health authorities are bracing for an increase in complaints and questions to its COVID-19 information line this fall.

Temperatures are already dropping from summer highs in the N.W.T., forcing residents to spend more and more time indoors. In just two weeks time, hundreds of students will also return to classrooms.

More time indoors means closer quarters and more opportunity for transmission, health authorities warned.

In a news conference Friday, Dr. Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer, urged residents to "keep your circle small," and isolate if any flu-like symptoms arise.

The N.W.T. has not been able to move to Phase 3 of its reopening plan as a spike of cases in the rest of Canada, and an estimated fourfold increase in self-isolation plans submitted by travellers, has kept public health authorities on alert.

"We need to understand what the next surge in infections looks like in the rest of Canada," said Kandola. Phase 3 will have to wait until that surge has been "contained," she said.

Nearly six months into the pandemic, the territory has still not developed the rapid testing and tracing capacity Kandola said is necessary to ease restrictions further.

Health authorities say the territory must develop better rapid-testing capacity before it can move to Phase 3 of its reopening plan. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

That means an expected surge in respiratory infections, as flu season begins and people spend more time indoors, could test the capacity of the public health system.

"This is a national challenge and one we're working hard to solve," said Kandola.

Conrad Baetz, the territory's enforcement and compliance chief, said the N.W.T. was looking at new rapid testing systems to supplement those already ordered, but would not specify what those other technologies are.

Some Phase 3 activities, like indoor recreational sports, are being reviewed for inclusion in Phase 2, Kandola said.

More calls to ProtectNWT

The fall is also expected to add more pressure to the territory's ProtectNWT complaints information line, which residents routinely complain on social media is slow in responding.

Baetz said the territory "does not have the capacity" to increase enforcement of public health orders or self-isolation plans at this time, as staff seconded to its COVID-19 enforcement task force are returning to their regular roles.

That's also true for the ProtectNWT information line, Kandola said. Several summer staff are now returning to other roles.

Conrad Baetz, the territory's head of enforcement, speaks to a public health officer in April. Baetz said the territory cannot increase its capacity to enforce public health orders at this time. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Baetz said the territory did plan to hire some "full time, casual compliance individuals" in the fall, but explained health authorities are not planning on empowering the RCMP to issue tickets related to public health orders, as they have been in Yukon.

He did say they're reviewing that territory's use of decals to denote approved out-of-territory vehicles.

"When we first set up these measures at the border, we didn't anticipate there would be this much attention to out-of-territory plates," he said.

"We're learning as we go."

Mandatory masks not on the table — yet

Even though the territory will likely remain in Phase 2, more stringent public health measures may be introduced.

Kandola currently recommends residents wear masks anywhere they are not able to physically distance, which would include most indoor spaces.

However, Kandola said it remains only a recommendation, even as Walmart and other national retailers move toward making masks mandatory in their stores.

Masks now mandatory at Yellowknife Walmart

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On Wednesday face masks became mandatory at the Yellowknife Walmart. CBC North's Jay Legere spoke with some Walmart shoppers in Yellowknife.

That may change if there is a surge in respiratory infections in the fall.

"We are going to be looking carefully … as more and more people move indoors," she said.

Kandola also emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu as a means of reducing the number of coronavirus-like cases.

"If you get flu-like symptoms, the last thing you want to be worried about is, is this flu or is this COVID[-19]?" she said.

Earlier this month, the territory said the public health emergency was extended for the tenth time, through to Aug. 18.

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