New isolation rules, COVID-19 testing and vaccine rollout — N.W.T. top doctors explain the latest

What's the difference between point of care testing for COVID-19 and rapid testing? The N.W.T.'s top doctors took listener questions Thursday morning live on CBC Radio's The Trailbreaker covering the latest COVID-19 updates.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola, medical director Dr. Sarah Cook spoke on CBC's The Trailbreaker

The N.W.T.'s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook took questions live Thursday morning on CBC's The Trailbreaker. (CBC)

The number of COVID-19 cases continue to grow across the country and as the holiday season approaches, Dr. Kami Kandola, N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, has been urging people to avoid non-essential travel.

"We are anticipating a surge of visitors over the Christmas holiday period," Kandola said.

"If it's non-essential, do you really want to bring that risk into N.W.T., into your family, into your community? And if you're considering traveling out to hotspots, is this the time?"

As of Wednesday, the territory had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 10 listed as recovered. Across Canada, as of 11:15 a.m. ET Thursday, there are 51,407 active cases.

This week the N.W.T. government tightened its travel restrictions within the territory including bursting the travel bubble between it and Nunavut. And, as of Wednesday afternoon, entire households must now self-isolate for 14 days if one or more people living in the home have returned from travel.

The new self-isolation rules have renewed the question of whether people can get on the spot testing to avoid these restrictions and whether masks should be mandatory in the territory.

Kandola, along with the territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook took listener questions about COVID-19 live Thursday morning on CBC's The Trailbreaker.

Rapid testing versus point of care testing. What's the difference?

Cook explained there's a difference between rapid testing and point of care testing.

Rapid testing, she explained, is the testing the N.W.T. is doing right now, with the machines at the Stanton Territorial Hospital, which, once the tests come to the lab, can process results within an hour. Results are very quick, she explained but people still have to account for the time it takes to get the test to the lab.

Point of care testing, Cook says, is getting test results processed outside of the lab, with almost immediate results. That type of testing has not yet rolled out in N.W.T. but will be coming "soon" to communities as the territory smoothes out logistics.

"Often when people are talking about rapid testing, what they mean is point of care testing, which is the types of tests that can be done outside of labs," Cook said.

In both cases, the risk of a test being a false negative means no type of test can replace self-isolation in N.W.T. at this time.

Are out-of-territory health-care providers getting tested prior to providing services?

Yes, they are tested upon arrival, Cook says. But it does not replace the risk of a false negative.

That means in the first 14 days in the N.W.T., they can cover an emergency shift if the test comes back negative, with appropriate PPE and frequent hand washing, and then they must go straight to their accommodations and isolate outside of their shifts.

N.W.T. also avoids sending those workers into small communities in those first 14 days, but it's not always avoidable.

"We know the risk for our territory — that we rely quite heavily on health-care providers coming from outside … ideally we wouldn't, but the reality is that we do," Cook said.

Missed the live call-in show? Watch it here:

Why aren't masks mandatory in N.W.T.?

They are mandatory for people travelling into the N.W.T. who, generally, must self-isolate (along with their household if there isn't a self-contained suite available to them).

It is highly recommended for those already in N.W.T. both indoors and in outdoor settings where you can't maintain physical distance, Kandola added.

The rationale, she says, is based on risk, and the biggest risk is people travelling into the territory, not community transmission.

She added the territory is urging employers to make masks mandatory for their employees.

"Employers have to realize that the risk has changed. And if they have employees who are handling the cash and there's no plexiglass and they're not wearing a mask, they're putting the health and safety of their employees at risk, particularly in areas that are frequented by people traveling out of territory."

Kandola says she urges employers to make masks mandatory for their employees. (John Pike/CBC)

When a vaccine arrives, how will the territory ensure the greatest number of people are immunized?

It will be prioritized to those at highest risk, including elderly, those living in communities with less access to health-care services and essential health-care workers.

Kandola says she anticipates a COVID-19 vaccine to be rolled out to the general population by the end of 2021.

The number of people who have gotten flu vaccines this year in Yellowknife is much higher than in previous years, she added.

Cook also said that there's online booking for flu vaccine appointments available in the city too.

Why isn't there signage in Indigenous languages in some communities still?

Kandola says she's aware of that concern being raised and that she will flag it again to her team.

Written by Amy Tucker with files from The Trailbreaker