North

Rapid testing available in N.W.T. but a shortage of cartridges limits use

Despite weeks of no active cases of COVID-19 in the territory, the N.W.T.’s top doctor is warning residents to continue to follow the rules.

Territory surpasses 2,000 COVID-19 tests, asks for money back from defective masks

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T. says maintaining the territory's testing strategy tops her list to continue a successful pandemic response. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Despite weeks of no active cases of COVID-19 in the territory, the N.W.T.'s top doctor is warning residents to continue to follow the rules.

"Having no active cases in the N.W.T. for a while doesn't mean this is anywhere close to over," said Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief medical officer of health, during a wide-ranging media briefing by teleconference Wednesday.

"As we move forward, following the rules is going to be even more important."

Kandola said that includes maintaining physical distancing and keeping "friendship circles" as close as possible.

The circles are one of the measures under the territory's first phase of its plan to gradually reopen, which began Friday. It allows households to invite up to five people inside their home, but comes with a caveat. A maximum of 10 people are allowed inside at a time, meaning a family of seven could only invite three people in, Kandola explained.

While physical distancing is the best approach, Kandola said if you're in a situation where you can't, then wearing a non-medical mask will protect each other from exposure.

Keep a mask at the ready

"It's not required to wear a non-medical mask. But [what] I am recommending is that everyone have a non-medical mask available in a plastic bag," she said.

"So if they're in a scenario in a grocery store, or they're in a waiting room, or they have to grab a cab, that they are able to access their mask and use it to protect others."

Kandola pointed out that under the first phase, there are requirements for some businesses that are allowed to reopen to have customers and staff wear non-medical masks — for instance, when getting a haircut or going for a massage.

System up and running

Kandola said the top priority to maintain the territory's successful pandemic response is to continue with its aggressive testing strategy.

She said over the weekend, the territory surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 tests and that more than four per cent of the territory's population has now been tested. She said that puts the N.W.T. among some of the world's most aggressive testers.

Those efforts were boosted over the weekend when health workers began using the GeneXpert testing system, which can analyze a nasal swab in under 45 minutes.

But Dr. Sarah Cook, the medical director of health with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, said a national shortage of testing cartridges used in the GeneXpert means the territory needs to prioritize when it uses the system until a more secure supply is available.

Dr. Sarah Cook, territorial medical director of health with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, says for a period of time, the territory had better access to physicians than it usually does because people haven’t been going on vacation. (Submitted by the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority)

"We're hoping that we're going to get more testing cartridges available in the fall so that we can have a quicker turnaround of test results," Kandola said, adding the territory will need it by the time flu season hits and people will spend more time indoors, where it's more likely people could contract COVID-19.

She ruled out testing every person who crosses the border into the N.W.T., but suggested the territory could target essential workers coming in who work in small communities, such as health-care workers.

Staffing doctors in the territory during the pandemic has not been an issue, said Cook.

"Ironically, during the pandemic, because everyone's leave was cancelled, for a period of time we've actually had better access to physicians than we usually do because people haven't been going on vacation or going away to conferences," she said.

Territory looks for its money back from defective KN95 masks

Separately, the territory says it will be seeking reimbursement for more than 5,000 defective KN95 masks that have been recalled by Health Canada.

In an email, the territorial government said it spent more than $22,000 on the masks. A total of 7,000 were ordered — 1,480 were on back order, but the government said it would not be accepting them.

Cook said the masks were not intended to be used by health-care providers.

Ivan Russell, the director of the territory's public safety division, said the masks were supposed to be used for other essential services.

With files from Hilary Bird

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