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Long-term care visits, travel and testing: N.W.T.'s top doctors answer your COVID-19 questions

Some restaurants and bars are seating guests again, and campgrounds are open, but things aren't fully back to normal yet in the Northwest Territories. Here are your current questions for the territory's top doctors.

Dr. Kami Kandola and Dr. Sarah Cook answered questions on CBC radio on Thursday

N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola, left, and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook answered your questions live on radio Thursday. (CBC)

Some restaurants and bars are seating guests again, and campgrounds are open, but things aren't fully back to normal yet in the Northwest Territories. 

It's been nearly three weeks since the territory entered the second phase of its reopening plan. The states of emergency and public health emergency were extended for the seventh time on June 24. 

On Thursday, N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola and territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook took your COVID-19-related questions for an hour during a call-in show with host Loren McGinnis on CBC's The Trailbreaker.

Here are some of your questions:

When will we be able to visit loved ones in long-term care homes?

Protecting people in long-term care has presented "a really, really challenging situation for all of us," said Cook.

She acknowledged that barring visitors from long-term care facilities has a big impact on both residents and their loved ones.

Residents of long-term care facilities are often at the highest risk for complications resulting from COVID-19, said Cook. 

"We've seen across that Canada long-term care outbreaks are extremely dangerous."

Avens - A Community for Seniors, provides housing for independent seniors, dementia care and palliative support in Yellowknife. The centre began implementing COVID-19 interventions the week of March 9. (Submitted by Avens)

For now, she said,  it's about balancing that risk with the physical and mental health effects of visitation restrictions. 

While restrictions on visitors to hospitals have been relaxed, it's unclear when the same will happen in the territory's long-term care homes. 

Health officials continue to look at guidance and epidemiological information to determine the best balance of risk, "understanding there is a health and mental wellness impact," said Cook.

Why must people entering the territory isolate — can't we just test them upon arrival?

Testing isn't perfect, said Cook. 

The test, called the reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, uses a swab to the back of the nose or throat and essentially amplifies a segment of DNA to see whether a person has COVID-19, Cook explained.

But, she added, the swabs don't always pick up the virus and tests have a false negative rate of around 20 per cent.

For people without symptoms, the test is even less accurate and there are more false negatives, said Cook. That's why testing isn't used on its own, but in addition to self-isolation and other public health measures.

Public health officials still encourage anyone with symptoms ranging from a cough, shortness of breath or sore throat, to a fever or vomiting, to get tested. 

"Anyone, regardless of travel, should be coming in for testing," said Cook.

Travellers wait for a taxi outside the international arrivals area at Vancouver International Airport on May 29. 'Anyone, regardless of travel, should be coming in for testing,' said Cook. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

I live in Alberta but I have family in N.W.T. When will I be able to visit them again?

As of Thursday, Alberta had 547 active cases of COVID-19 and "far less restrictive" public health measures, said Kandola.

"As long as they're at higher risk, we'll have to keep travel restrictions in place," she said. "My ultimate goal is protecting N.W.T. residents."

N.W.T. residents can leave the territory, but they must self-isolate for 14 days upon return under current rules.

Kandola said relatives and people who are Indigenous can ask the territorial government for exemptions. She added that visitors from outside the territory will have to isolate for 14 when they get here.

As of Tuesday when the territory last updated its numbers, there had been 2,613 tests done in N.W.T., with five of those coming back positive. All five confirmed cases have recovered months ago.

Missed the livestream? You can watch it here:

Written by Sidney Cohen, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis

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