Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., slowly recovering after COVID-19 outbreak

On Monday, there were zero COVID-19 in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., for the first time since Nov. 8 when four residents tested positive. "The community stepped up and that was the biggest thing," says mayor Erwin Elias.

After more than 10 per cent of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., contracted COVID-19, the community had zero cases Monday

Erwin Elias, mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, credits the community for stepping up and adhering to public health orders for the drop in cases from 103 on Nov. 16 to zero on Monday. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., is slowly recovering after going through a COVID-19 outbreak.

On Monday, there were no active COVID-19 cases reported in the community for the first time since Nov. 8, when four residents tested positive for the disease. That marked the beginning of a local outbreak that peaked on Nov. 16 when there were 103 cases in the community of less than 1,000 people.

A 10-day containment order was issued for Tuktoyaktuk on Nov. 9 by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer. The order was extended twice and remained in place until Dec. 5.

During that time, students attended school online, all non-essential businesses were ordered to close, and travel into and out of the community was not recommended.

Mayor Erwin Elias thanked the community for "toughing it out" and adhering to the strict containment order.

"We can't do it if the people don't listen," he said. "The community stepped up and that was the biggest thing."

"Ten per cent of the population had COVID[-19] and we were able to come out of it. After having over 100 people, within a month, we were able to get to zero," he said. "So that kind of says a lot about our community."

Elias said Tuktoyaktuk made it through the outbreak without a death.

"We didn't have anything really serious due to COVID-19, [for] which we're very fortunate."

On Thursday, the N.W.T. government reported there were four active COVID-19 cases in the Beaufort Delta region but did not specify which community.

Competitors came together

As an essential business, Tuktoyaktuk's Northern grocery store was allowed to remain open during the lockdown but it wasn't easy. During the worst of the crisis, the store was down to just three staff members, said manager Ian Ross.

Stanton Tuk, the other grocery store in town, was in a similar bind.

"We were both severely depleted with staff, so there were a couple of days there when both stores were running at probably 25 per cent capacity," said Ross. "That was mainly due to staff either having COVID[-19] or staff that lived in a household with COVID[-19] that had to self-isolate."

For one week, while cases were peaking in November, the two rival businesses collaborated to make sure at least one grocery store remained open to serve residents on any given day.

"In times like this, we all help each other out if we can," said Ross.

On Thursday, Ross said it was still slower than usual at the Northern for the holiday season, but that it had started to pick up a little.

"It's just nice to get the social aspect. It's nice to have families come back in, especially this time of year," he said. "We have the store all decorated. You hope the kids can come in and enjoy that, right?"

A month without seeing grandchildren

Molly Nogasak was relieved to hear the containment order was lifted and cases were at zero. The Tuktoyaktuk elder said she went more than a month without seeing her grandchildren.

"They were even counting the days," she said.

Nogasak made sure to keep in touch with family and friends in the community throughout the lockdown.

"We still talked to each other by the phone, just to make sure they're okay and if they needed anything from the stores or anything," she said.

Earlier this week, Nogasak finally had her grandchildren over.

"Two of them camped over the other evening," she said. "That's what they always wanted to do — they wanted to camp over — when they phoned me."

Still, the pandemic is not far from residents' minds. Nogasak said she hoped people continued to take precautions, as the Omicron variant spreads across the country.

With students attending school online during Tuktoyaktuk's nearly month-long lockdown, Mangilaluk School became an isolation centre. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

Students returned to school Dec. 13 for the first in-person classes in over a month.

Through much of the lockdown, Mangilaluk School was used as an isolation centre.

In a note on Dec. 9, Devin Roberts, Beaufort Delta Educational Division Council superintendent, informed parents and guardians that the school had "undergone a deep cleaning by our hardworking custodial team" to prepare for students.

Public celebration in limbo

Elias, who was re-elected mayor on Monday, said the hamlet had applied for an exemption with the OCPHO to host a 200-person event at Kitti Hall that would recognize the community's volunteers, as well as celebrate Tuktoyaktuk coming through its COVID-19 outbreak.

The event would have included a feast, as well as dancing and musical performances. But the application was denied on Wednesday.

The N.W.T. has had territory-wide restrictions of 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors for non-essential gatherings in place since Oct. 21.

"We felt that we could do it in a safe manner with people being double-vaccinated and boosters and all that stuff," Elias said. "It is what it is, I guess."

Elias said the hamlet would re-apply for a 100-person event for double-vaccinated residents, although food would have to packed up and handed out.

"I've been kind of saying this for a while that there's a storm brewing for the mental health part of this whole thing. Especially with our people, because of our culture and how we gather as Inuvialuit, and then living way up north in a small community," he said.

"It's hard on everybody — especially the kids that had to stay in because we had a containment order in place."

With files from Liny Lamberink