North

Expect strict restrictions designed to halt spread of COVID-19 in N.W.T. to continue indefinitely

Among the provinces and territories, the Northwest Territories has one of the lowest number of cases of COVID-19 in Canada, but health officials are implementing aggressive restrictions, not because of what's happened so far, but because of what could come next.

Chief public health officer says restrictions won't ease up until illness's spread across Canada lessens

Dr. Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer for the N.W.T., speaks during a COVID-19 briefing. She explained why she's acting aggressively against the disease, despite few confirmed cases in the territory. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The Northwest Territories is enforcing its strictest order yet to fight COVID-19, not because of what's happened so far, but because of what could happen next. 

The territory's ban on nearly all social gatherings, indoors and out, came into effect this weekend. Though it has a few exceptions, the public health order limits nearly all but the most essential services.

It's an aggressive step for a territory that, as of April 14, has had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has yet to see community spread.

For Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, being aggressive is the only way to keep it that way and avoid spreading the illness like it has across Canada and the rest of the world. 

"They can't take back time," Kandola said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday. 

"I still have time on my hands, I'm still in containment mode," she said. "Putting in these measures now, instead of trying to play catch-up, is the most proactive thing I can do."

This is consistent with what Kandola and other health officials in the Northwest Territories have said throughout the past month. That approach will continue until the disease has reached its peak in southern Canada, no matter what the numbers look like in the Northwest Territories, Kandola said.  

I still have time on my hands, I'm still in containment mode.- Dr. Kami Kandola, N.W.T. chief public health officer 

"I want to see, does Canada hit a peak with their infections?" she said. "That would be a time when I would be looking at relaxing restrictions in the N.W.T." 

Likewise, Kandola expects to continue to recommend renewing the territory's public health emergency until the situation improves across the country — particularly in Alberta and B.C., because of the frequent travel between those provinces and the Northwest Territories.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said those restrictions will likely continue for weeks as the first wave of the pandemic is not yet over

In instituting her ban on gatherings, Kandola hopes to crack down on the partying that continues to be reported across the territory, in defiance of her previous orders and recommendations. 

Though Kandola could not immediately provide figures, she said it was a "busy" weekend for calls coming in to the territory's enforcement unit about those parties. 

Support from the Gwich'in Tribal Council

Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan of the Gwich'in Tribal Council supports these restrictions, even as they come up against the impulse to visit and gather as spring approaches. 

"I understand it is different, but I strongly believe these measures are important," Greenland-Morgan said. She's urging people to stay calm, follow health recommendations and be kind to each other.

Like Kandola, Greenland-Morgan has heard of many cases of drinking and partying continuing in small homes, a concern that has been brought up many times by leaders across the territory. 

Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, supports the moves taken so far by health officials in the Northwest Territories. (Facebook)
 

Kandola — and the territorial government as a whole — have been acting with a broad coalition of support behind them throughout the pandemic. That support continues, but there are questions about oversight of government policies going forward. 

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson says he's confident in how the territory has responded so far and he doesn't question Kandola's decision, but he does expect more transparency from the government as the pandemic continues. 

"Initially, as regular MLAs, we're almost completely hands off," Johnson said. "We need that initial response, we need people to be able to make quick, fast decisions." 

Now, as that shock and initial response wears off, it'll be on elected MLAs to keep the government accountable, he said. As part of that, he expects the Legislative Assembly to sit again next month, even if it's done remotely. 

"That role needs to increase, to provide public confidence and public trust that our democracy and our checks and balances are still in place," he said. "The 'why' question needs to now be a priority." 

Clarifications

  • This story has been clarified to say Dr. Kami Kandola recommends extending public health orders.
    Apr 14, 2020 9:46 PM CT

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