Territories ramp up preparations for possible coronavirus cases in the North

As of Friday there were no reported COVID-19 cases in the North. Territorial public health officials continue to characterize the risk as low.

'We’re looking at pandemic planning,' says N.W.T.'s chief public health officer

Stanton Territorial Hospital in September 2019. 'Right now we're in this transition phase where we’re looking at pandemic planning,” said Dr. Kami Kandola, the Northwest Territories’ chief public health officer. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

Public health officials in the three territories say they are working on plans in case the current coronavirus outbreak spreads to the North.

"Right now we're in this transition phase where we're looking at pandemic planning, so in the Northwest Territories we are in the planning phase," said Dr. Kami Kandola, the Northwest Territories' chief public health officer. 

As of Friday, there were 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada plus a presumptive case in Quebec, but no cases in the three territories.

While the World Health Organization says the risk of spread and impact of COVID-19 at a global level is "very high," public health officials in the North, and in Canada as whole, still characterize the risk as low. 

Kandola said the N.W.T. is working on a specific coronavirus plan, which involves detecting cases early and limiting the disease's spread. She said territorial health authorities have boosted their stockpiles of protective gear, such as masks, gowns and gloves.

Dr. Kami Kandola says territorial health authorities have boosted their stockpile of protective gear, such as masks, gowns and gloves. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Kandola said "it's never a harm" for people to have a backup supply of food and medicine.

Smaller communities are easier to protect than larger cities, said Kandola, because there aren't crowds and mass gatherings.

Kandola wouldn't say how many people had been tested for coronavirus — "I don't want to go into specifics of testing, but when we've tested, the test results resulted in negative," she said. 

"We're exercising vigilance and always considering [the coronavirus] as part of what we think when people present with flu-like symptoms."

'We don't want people to panic'

"We don't want people to panic," said Pat Living, a spokesperson for the Yukon Health and Social Services department. "It's important to remember that COVID-19 is generally a very mild disease." 

It's important to remember that COVID-19 is generally a very mild disease.- Pat Living, spokesperson for Yukon Health and Social Services 

Living said 80 per cent of people who contract the disease recover without needing medical care. Elderly people and those with other illnesses or compromised immune systems are more likely to have more severe cases.

The Yukon health department is "keeping up-to-the-minute in information," Living said, and it's "looking ahead to say 'OK, if we did have something, do our health centres have supplies for this long?'" 

Nunavut improving preparedness

While the chance of COVID-19 arriving in Nunavut is low, that territory's chief medical officer said if the disease "continues in this fashion around the world the way it is, then we're probably going to see cases sooner or later." 

Dr. Michael Patterson said the territory is improving its preparedness for the spread of COVID-19. He said staff are reviewing protocols for viral infections and the health department is working to ensure it has the equipment it needs. 

"Many of the isolation recommendations and personal protective equipment are similar to many other infections but oftentimes, staff may go months or years without having to use that sort of equipment and those procedures," he said.

As far as protective measures in hospitals go, Patterson said COVID-19 requires "less than tuberculosis, in some ways."

Dr. Michael Patterson is Nunavut's chief medical officer of health. He said that while the chance of COVID-19 arriving in Nunavut is low, if the disease 'continues in this fashion around the world the way it is, then we're probably going to see cases sooner or later.' (CBC)

Patterson said the department is screening for the disease. 

"There have been a few [patients] where they've been in the right area at the right time and so we've asked people to isolate at home and done some swabs, all of which have been negative so far."

Should the disease spread to a small community, Patterson the department may admit people to hospital who don't necessarily need medical care, if they can't isolate themselves at home.

Yellowknife pharmacy out of masks

Back in Yellowknife, Shoppers Drug Mart says it has run out of face masks, and staff don't know when more will come in.

"All over Yellowknife there are no masks available," said pharmacy technician Ishita Shah. "We are getting many patients asking for masks, but everywhere they are out of stock. We've been trying to order for so long."

Shah couldn't say whether COVID-19 was a factor in the mask shortage. 

Kandola said people who are well don't need masks. She said masks are for two kinds of people: those who are sick and waiting in the hospital for care, and health-care providers who are treating sick people.

Grocer not worried about food supply

Glen Meek, owner of Glen's Your Independent Grocer in downtown Yellowknife, said he's not concerned about running out of food. He said he's probably going to up his stock of non-perishable goods "a little bit." 

"I'm hoping people don't panic," he said, adding that he gets deliveries six times a week, so the store should be able to accommodate a rush of people looking to stockpile food.

With files from Nick Murray, Mike Rudyk and Mackenzie Scott


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