Difficult but necessary steps taken in Fort Liard to contain COVID-19, N.W.T. health minister says

Sunday’s public update comes after three cases of COVID-19 were reported in Fort Liard, N.W.T., on Saturday. 

3 cases confirmed in Fort Liard, community put under 14-day containment order

N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola updates the public from the Legislative Assembly on Sunday on the developing COVID-19 situation in the territory while Premier Caroline Cohcrane looks on. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Difficult but necessary restrictions are in place in Fort Liard, N.W.T. to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the community, the territory's Health Minister Julie Green said Sunday.

Speaking by phone at a news conference at the Legislative Assembly a day after three cases were reported in the hamlet of about 537 people, Green said she realizes residents in the community are facing a degree of uncertainty they have not experienced since the start of the pandemic, but asked people to stay strong and maintain health protocols.

"That anxiety is natural," Green said. "What's important to understand is that ... we have been preparing for these kinds of situations. Our pandemic response plan provides direction for the health system to respond quickly and efficiently to situations such as those we are now facing."

In response to the cases, the territory's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola issued a 14-day containment order for Fort Liard Saturday night, banning gatherings of any size in a home, closing schools to in-person learning, shuttering non-essential businesses, and mandating masks in public places, among other restrictions.

Speaking at the news conference Sunday, Kandola said there's a "good chance" that more cases will develop, but they have not identified any public exposure risks yet.

"We are confident that the source case was linked to travel outside the Northwest Territories," Kandola said.

"We have not identified any public exposure events along the travel route or in any other communities at this time. If this changes we will update you."

Kandola said about 50 people are now isolating in Fort Liard, but the number is dynamic and may change quickly.

The cases in Fort Liard do not, for now, meet the definition of community spread.

"Right now we would classify this as a small community cluster," Kandola said. "All identified infections [are] from a known source. We will update on any change to this characterization."

Addressing rumours that a COVID-19 case may have travelled to other communities, Kandola said health authorities have the situation under control.

"We know we have a good grasp on close contacts of those cases ... and we have reached out to the close contacts of those cases," Kandola said.

"There is no scenario where ... there is an unidentified contact in another community that has not been made aware [of contact]."

Wastewater signal in Hay River may be linked to Fort Liard case

This week wastewater testing in Hay River signalled the presence of at least one undetected case of COVID-19, prompting public health officials to ask anyone who had been isolating in Hay River or Kátł'odeeche First Nation since Jan. 1 to get tested

On Sunday, Kandola said the first Fort Liard case appears to be connected to the signal of COVID-19 in Hay River wastewater. She said the first case of COVID-19 in Fort Liard was a person who went to get tested after an advisory went out about the community's wastewater testing results.

"We are exploring the potential of connection between the Fort Liard cases and the Hay River wastewater signal," Kandola said. 

"The individual who was tested [positive] for COVID-19 responded to the public health advisory indicating anyone who had been in Hay River during that period should be tested. They had returned to Fort Liard already and were tested there."

Kandola said more data needed to be collected to confirm this theory.

She said public health is still awaiting more results from Hay River's wastewater testing to see whether the signal is remaining stable or going down.

Yellowknife update

Kandola said wastewater testing for signals of COVID-19 in Yellowknife remain stable. These comments were in reference to the case of COVID-19 identified in the community Friday. The source of that case has yet to be identified, raising the spectre of community spread.

Though no exposure notices have been issued in Yellowknife, staff, select residents, and visitors to AVENS - A Community for Seniors, have been asked to get a test for COVID-19.

"I want to be very clear, there is no indication of any exposure risk at AVENS right now. We are simply exploring new leads as we cast a very wide net to attempt to identify the source of infection," said Kandola.

"There is no need for alarm."

She said about 450 tests have been completed in Yellowknife in the last two weeks, and if there was widespread transmission in the city, public health would expect to have seen additional positive COVID-19 cases.

Kandola did not announce any changes to public health restrictions in Yellowknife.

Kandola asked N.W.T. residents to get vaccinated as soon as they are able to. Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the medical director in the territory, said the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority website would be updated soon with information on how to book their vaccinations.

Missed the news conference? Watch it here: