What's it like to isolate every few weeks? Ask this Yellowknife family

Every time Mike Allerston returns to Yellowknife from working two-week rotations in Alberta’s oilsands, he self-isolates with his family following the N.W.T.'s COVID-19 public health order.

Mike Allerston works 2-week rotations in Alberta's oilsands and is required to self-isolate in Yellowknife

The Allerston family self-isolates together in Yellowknife after Mike Allerston returns from working two-week rotations in Alberta's oilsands. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

After two weeks of solo-parenting her two young children, Shannon Allerston is ready to be reunited with her husband at their home in Yellowknife.

Mike Allerston works two-week rotations as a heavy duty mechanic apprentice in Fort McMurray, Alta.

He's worked this kind of rotation for 18 years.

"It's all we know as a family," said Shannon.

But during his two weeks home, life has been hardly back to normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You try to get the kids pumped up like, daddy will be home tomorrow ... They haven't seen him for two weeks and then they start to cry," she said.

Once Mike walks through the door, the whole family hunkers down and self-isolates for two weeks as required by the territory's chief public health officer's self-isolation order, which came into effect earlier this year. Most people entering the N.W.T. are required to quarantine.

Mike said he's getting to know his kids more thanks to quarantine. (Submitted by Shannon Allerston)

"It's kind of like an emotional roller-coaster all the time," said Mike.

That means no barbecues with friends, dates or playing at the park with their children when they are together as a family.

'Crazy, busy, fun' 

The family's first round of isolation came at the onset of the pandemic.

They were returning to Canada from a holiday in the United States when Canada's prime minister called on all Canadians abroad to come home.

When Mike went back to work, reality set in for the family.

"The kids are small. We can't isolate from the children or else they would never see their dad," said Shannon, who says the family is taking public health rules seriously.

The family is grateful Mike is still employed.

"We understand that we're probably one of the bigger risks," said Shannon. "Still [it's] hard sometimes, you know?"

Drive, work, self-isolate, repeat

Mike rises early when he heads back to work in Alberta.

By 4 a.m., he's on the road driving more than 1,600 kilometres from Yellowknife to Fort McMurray. 

Mike has been working on two-week rotations for 18 years. (Submitted by Shannon Allerston)

Since the pandemic there are fewer flights between the N.W.T. and Alberta. Driving also reduces the risk of exposure to the virus, said Mike, who describes this cycle as "a bit of a grind."

During self-isolation the family orders groceries online and relies on friends to deliver supplies at a distance.

Shannon works from home on her laptop at the kitchen table.

There's many distractions sharing a workspace with your family, she said.

There are many distractions sharing a workspace with your family, Shannon said. (Submitted by Shannon Allerston)

"They are like running back and forth in the kitchen and in the hallway shooting Nerf guns at each other," said Shannon, describing her work environment. 

"You know, 'Don't work, mommy, come snuggle me,' like all day long," she said. "There's definitely moments when we get a little overwhelmed."

More snuggles, more family time

The Allerstons say there have been a lot of positives too.

"Like really getting to know my kids." said Mike, who spends his time in quarantine making forts with his children and telling stories.

He's grateful for that.

The family gets outside as much as possible, going on hikes and camping adventures in areas where there's little chance of running into people.

Mike took several weeks of vacation to break up the isolation.

The Allerston family spends as much time as they can outside on hikes when they are self-isolating. (Submitted by Shannon Allerston)

"Crazy, busy, fun," said Shannon, summing up their lives right now.

Now, their sights are set on the next school year and what that will look like for their children.

The family is still trying to get answers if their son Johnny can go to school when his father is self-isolating.

"It's just kind of sad to know that he's not going to get the same sort of access to education as the other kids," said Shannon, who is preparing to send her son to school part-time. 

The Allerstons have contacted the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer to find out if they qualify for a compassionate exemption for self-isolating, similar to pilots and other essential workers.

Last Friday, the family said it got word that Mike may be eligible for an exemption if he can get a rapid COVID-19 test 48 hours before leaving Alberta.

They're hopeful.

"My boy definitely needs to be around other kids all the time ... He needs the social interaction with his friends to keep him happy and busy," said Mike.


Kate Kyle is a producer based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle