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N.W.T. doctors call for end to 'harmful' COVID-19 social restrictions

‘The detrimental health, social and financial effects of social distancing are mounting, while the damage done by the COVID virus itself has been nil,’ the head of the N.W.T. Medical Association wrote in a letter to Dr. Kami Kandola.

‘It is unlikely that social distancing restrictions within the N.W.T. have prevented one case of COVID[-19]’

‘The detrimental health, social and financial effects of social distancing are mounting, while the damage done by the COVID[-19] virus itself has been nil,’ wrote the head of the N.W.T. Medical Association, Dr. Andrew Kotaska. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Physical distancing restrictions are more harmful than the small risk of COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories, according to the N.W.T. Medical Association, which wrote a letter to the territory's chief public health officer calling for an end to the practice. 

"The detrimental health, social and financial effects of social distancing are mounting," wrote the head of the N.W.T. Medical Association, Dr. Andrew Kotaska, "while the damage done by the COVID virus itself has been nil."

The association, which represents 84 doctors who work in the territory, argues that the N.W.T. should adopt the approach taken by New Zealand, which ended distancing measures in June. It says the territory should accept the risk that more COVID-19 cases will arrive, but rely on testing, tracing and self-isolation to contain those that do. 

"Schools, businesses, restaurants, and sports facilities should re-open without social distancing restrictions, but with improved global public health measures," reads the letter, dated June 21. 

"Hospital restrictions on asymptomatic visitors should be lifted." 

Dr. Kotaska is out camping and unavailable for an interview. However, the secretary for the N.W.T. Medical Association said that a meeting with public health and staff at the Department of Health and Social Services is being planned for next week to discuss the issue. 

Mike Westwick, the territorial government's communications manager for COVID-19 response, confirmed that a meeting was being planned. 

"We believe our public health measures are backed up by best practices in the field, but we are always willing to listen," he wrote in an email. 

"It's important for everyone to understand that across Canada, hundreds of new cases are being reported each day —and we are very much connected to these jurisdictions," Westwick wrote. "That means there is always risk for our territory, which will continue to shape our approach to protecting public health in the Northwest Territories."

"My ultimate goal is protecting N.W.T. residents," Dr. Kami Kandola said in response to a question about the territory's protective measures during a weekly call-in show on The Trailbreaker early Thursday morning.

'Support was overwhelming'

CBC obtained a copy of the letter as an attachment sent by email to members of the N.W.T. Medical Association. In the email, Kotaska thanked the "dozens of members" of the N.W.T. Medical Association who responded to a draft of the letter, noting that "support was overwhelming." 

"Many of you shared poignant examples of harm from social distancing measures." 

The six-page letter includes a long list of those harms, including: increased domestic violence, decreased quality of education, increased apprehensions of at-risk children, increased substance abuse, poor access to help for other medical conditions, financial stress and "increasing anxiety from fear out of proportion to the risk of being harmed by COVID[-19]."

It also argues that border controls, testing ability, contact tracing and self-isolation protocols are now sufficient to contain the virus. It says health care facilities and hospitals have had sufficient time to prepare. 

Meanwhile, the letter says, "it is unlikely that social distancing restrictions within the N.W.T. have prevented one case of COVID[-19]."

Some dissent

Not all doctors agree entirely with the letter.

CBC spoke with one doctor who, while agreeing that the territory should move away from physical distancing, wondered whether we are in fact as prepared as the letter makes it sound.

Are we prepared enough to justify totally opening up all the social bubbles?- N.W.T. doctor

The doctor, who CBC agreed not to name, cited concerns around personal protective equipment for front-line workers, contact tracing, and the logistics of conducting tests as rapidly as the N.W.T. Medical Association envisions.

"Are we prepared enough to justify totally opening up all the social bubbles?" the doctor asked.

Lax rules 'a danger'

Many people are already ignoring distancing measures, Kotaska's letter notes. 

"If social distancing measures are kept in place, there is a danger that people will also ignore the more focused restrictions that are important to keeping COVID[-19] out of the territory," the letter states. 

"The Office of the Chief Public Health Officer is at risk of losing its credibility." 

The N.W.T. Medical Association recommends telling the public to expect more cases, but to understand that "we are prepared for it and confident that it can be managed in a manner that will minimize risk to the population of the N.W.T." 

Business groups also want end to distancing

Kotaska's letter echoes a similar call on June 25 from five business groups — including the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, the Yellowknife Chamber, the NWT and Nunavut Construction Association, Northwest Territories Tourism, and the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. 

In a press release, those groups note that the COVID-19 response has come at a "heavy price" that has not been fully accounted for. They also say the N.W.T. government has shown a lack of "urgency" in addressing that price. 

"[N.W.T. government] workers remain on full pay with no consequences to their personal incomes, household costs, or pensions (which we note, are largely supported by the taxes paid by the northern and Indigenous-owned businesses that we represent)."

The group characterizes the current public health regime as "opaque and restrictive," and says the chief public health office should no longer make decisions "in a vacuum," without the oversight of elected officials. 

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