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Internal emails show 100s of Nunavummiut struggled through isolation hubs

Through access to information requests, CBC has collected more than 700 pages of Government of Nunavut documents, emails and correspondence outlining incidents where residents were kicked out of the program, banned from hotels or had to restart isolation for breaking rules.

March 25 marks one year since Nunavut's isolation hubs were set up

A hotel suite used for Nunavut residents returning to the territory through an isolation hub. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

It's been one year since Nunavut's isolation hubs were set up, and among the nearly 11,000 stays in those centres, there have been hundreds of people who have struggled to complete their isolation. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly everyone entering the territory was required to spend two weeks in a government-approved isolation hotel in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife. 

Nunavut's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said the hubs have played an essential role in delaying COVID-19 from entering the territory.  As of March 21, a total of 10,861 stays had been completed at the isolation hubs. 

Numbers are tracked separately for the Winnipeg medical travel hub, 2,808 stays have been completed there. 

The hubs have come at a great financial cost to the territorial and federal governments — Nunavut's Department of Finance says the hubs have cost $80.1 million so far and officials say there are currently no plans to take hubs away. 

The personal cost of isolation

The Nunavut government's isolation hub program has come at a personal cost for hundreds of Nunavut residents who struggled to complete the two weeks of quarantine. 

Through access to information requests, CBC News has collected more than 700 pages of documents, emails, and correspondence within the Nunavut government that outline incidents in which residents were kicked out of the program, banned from hotels, or had to restart isolation for breaking rules. 

The documents show incidents that occurred in the first five months of the isolation hubs, and how the government tried to respond to violations such as intoxication, drug use, aggressive behaviour, property damage and setting a fire. 

Police intervened on numerous occasions. 

Threats, intoxication, leaving the hub, incidents of breaking isolation rules 

According to the documents, incidents of breaking isolation program rules started almost immediately. 

An email thread starting April 6, 2020, says two people were removed from the Winnipeg isolation hub and barred for "making threats against security and the hotel." 

Subsequent emails that appear to be related to the same people say the clients were a medical travel patient and their escort. The patient got frustrated in isolation, left the hotel and came back intoxicated. 

Names and identifying information about the individuals are redacted from the records, but the documents say the medical patient's escort wrote an apology letter to hotel management.

The escort was allowed to re-enter isolation, but the patient was not. An email from Nunavut government staff said the person needed to find their own accommodation for at least two nights.

An email from April 17, 2020, says arrangements were made to send the person to Ottawa to re-enter isolation more than a week after the person was removed from the Winnipeg hub. 

It is unclear where the person stayed during that time.  

According to the same email, the Nunavut government had to relocate someone else to Edmonton because they were banned from a Yellowknife isolation hub. 

Emails from April 23, 2020, show Nunavut government staff discussing sending three people to a shelter in Edmonton, after they were removed from a Yellowknife isolation hub for partying. 

"Perhaps we should offer them the option to bus to Edmonton and they can go to a shelter there and not do the isolation and not go to Nunavut at this time," said one of the emails.   

"Perhaps a shelter in Edmonton until such time that they are mentally prepared to properly complete the isolation time. They do have options."

"If indeed they aren't banned from the hotel, which I thought they were as they've been evicted, they can return but this must be immediate," said an email from the Nunavut government staff. "They can't continue to party in another hotel."

Correspondence shows the hotel would let all three people come back to isolate under the conditions of staying sober and away from each other.

Government mental health workers call every individual who enters isolation. In this case mental health workers were intervening trying to support individuals. 

CBC News requested interviews with Health Minister Lorne Kusugak and Patterson. Both were unavailable by deadline. 

Kusugak emailed CBC News a statement saying that everyone who has been removed from the hubs has been offered assistance and the opportunity to re-enter isolation. 

Lorne Kusugak is Nunavut's minister of health. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

"We have offered help with mental health and addictions with our teams, sometimes on a daily basis as people go through the isolation hubs," said the statement. 

Kusugak says changes to the program have been made as it continues to better offer support. 

"Every case is reviewed on its own and we offer the support that the people need to get through. Our goal is to get everyone home in a safe and timely manner."

More than 1,000 residents had to reset isolation 

According to the latest numbers from the Government of Nunavut, 1,411 people had to restart their isolation in the hubs. 

In the Winnipeg medical travel hub, 155 people had to restart isolation. As of March 23, 413 people have been removed from the isolation program. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said they were unable to figure out how many of these people did not come back to restart isolation. Not everyone was removed — some left voluntarily.

People who were banned from hubs and transferred to different isolation locations aren't tracked, said the spokesperson. 

Kivalliq Inuit Services received 'numerous calls' from barred clients

According to the documents, once you are kicked out of a hub, you are on your own. 

In an email from Barb Gregoire, a nurse manager for Kivalliq Inuit Services, Gregoire says she's receiving "numerous calls from these barred clients." 

Gregoire says many of these people are also barred from Kivalliq Inuit Centre boarding home and were taken to an intoxication unit at Martha Street in Winnipeg before being discharged. 

Gregoire writes that police have come to the boarding home to ask nurses for a safety plan for those individuals.

According to a response from Andrea McFaul, acting director of travel programs at the Government of Nunavut, anyone who is banned from the hub is considered a regular member of the public.

If they were traveling for medical under the Non-Insured Health Benefits and were kicked out of isolation, they are no longer considered insured and must pay for their own food and accommodation. 

Nunavut's medical travel program will provide return airfare tickets within a reasonable timeframe when isolation is completed, but it's up to the individual to get back into isolation. 

The boarding home should assist people who do not have access to phones or email, said the email from McFaul. 

The hubs have 1,178 incident reports to date and the Winnipeg medical travel hub has 436 incident reports.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that thousands of people had completed stays at isolation hotels. The story has been updated to clarify that in fact, thousands of stays have been completed at these hotels.
    Mar 25, 2021 10:40 AM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jackie McKay

Reporter

Jackie McKay is a Métis journalist working for CBC in Nunavut. She has worked as a reporter in Thunder Bay, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Jackie also worked on CBC Radio One shows including The Current, Metro Morning, after graduating from Ryerson University in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @mckayjacqueline.

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