When will the N.W.T. lift COVID-19 restrictions? Not for at least another month, says top doctor

COVID-19 health restrictions in the Northwest Territories are expected to continue for at least another month, but officials are now providing a roadmap for what easing those restrictions will look like. 

Dr. Kami Kandola is providing a broad road map for next steps if COVID-19 remains contained

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T. says it will be at least a few more weeks before she begins moving to ease restrictions in the territory. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

COVID-19 health restrictions in the Northwest Territories are expected to continue for at least another month, but officials are now providing a roadmap for what easing those restrictions will look like. 

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, outlined the territory's plans in broad strokes in a briefing with MLAs Wednesday morning, and touched on it again in a briefing with reporters later in the afternoon.

The territory has instituted aggressive restrictions against COVID-19, including border shutdowns and a ban on nearly all forms of gatherings. Those restrictions are paying off, Kandola said, with all five of the territory's COVID-19 cases now in recovery.

Broadly speaking, here's what she says needs to happen: 

Closing loopholes at N.W.T borders 

The border closure began in March, and Kandola expects to keep that until the curve has flattened and a vaccine is available across Canada, which could take "weeks or months."  

Since there is no evidence of community spread, the focus needs to be on making sure more new cases don't arrive from southern Canada, Kandola said. 

"The biggest risk to the territory is the situation across Canada," she said. 

To do that, she said the territory is preparing an amendment to its March 21 health order, which will require those who come in for essential services to self-isolate, leave their contact information with the government, and wear personal protective equipment.  

The biggest risk to the territory is the situation across Canada.- Dr. Kami Kandola, N.W.T. chief public health officer 

If essential workers cannot self-isolate for two weeks, they will be required to go into isolation whenever they are not performing their essential work. 

She also mentioned that people continue driving to northern B.C., where COVID-19 is present and are not isolating for two weeks — that needs to stop, Kandola said.  

"Our health system has limited ability to respond should an outbreak develop here," she said. "The best management of a pandemic is not to recover after an outbreak begins, but to do all we can to stop the outbreak from occurring." 

The bottom line for Kandola is that she needs to be convinced the border is adequately sealed off so that new cases cannot arrive and if they do, there is no threat of the virus spreading silently. 

Once that happens, she'd begin looking at opening up restrictions within the Northwest Territories. 

Increase community testing and tracking 

As of April 22, the Northwest Territories has tested nearly 1,600 people for COVID-19, with all but five people testing negative. 

So far, the focus has been on people showing potential symptoms of COVID-19, which are similar to the flu. Now that flu season is tapering off, there are fewer people showing those signs, Kandola said. 

A drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in downtown Yellowknife in March. Expect COVID-19 testing in the Northwest Territories to ramp up to include more people with milder symptoms. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"It's an insidious virus," she said. "The greatest risk of spread is early on."

Now, the territory will open up the criteria for getting tested, to people with milder symptoms to get a test. If those tests continue coming back negative, Kandola said she'd be confident COVID-19 is not hiding in the communities. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Kandola said the government will also start testing groups of people who work with high-risk populations, like doctors and nurses. But universal testing is not an option because there aren't enough tests available. 

If the tests it does complete continue coming back negative, Kandola said she'd be confident COVID-19 is not hiding in the communities.

Until she can be certain of that, Kandola said she won't be prepared to ease restrictions. 

Make rapid-testing widely available 

Average wait times for testing are currently between four and 10 days as tests head to Alberta to be completed. Rapid testing kits are on the way, which are expected to reduce waits to about an hour. 

With rapid-testing, Kandola said the territory can ramp up testing and see the evidence she needs to be convinced COVID-19 remains out of the territory. 

During Wednesday's afternoon briefing, Dr. Sarah Cook, the territory's medical director, said one of the ordered kits is expected to arrive shortly at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, and will be operational in the coming weeks.

Begin considering easing restrictions 

If all of the above criteria are met, that's when Kandola said she'd "begin thinking" about easing public health restrictions.

But residents should not expect life to return to the way it was before. At first, Kandola said she'll allow non-essential businesses to open as long as they are conducting risk assessments, have the proper protective gear for their staff, and can operate safely. 

Campgrounds could be opened, too. Kandola has repeatedly said she supports people getting out on the land and met with parks officials Wednesday to examine what that would look like. 

Mass gatherings of people will be the last thing she allows to return, she said. Any major event, like the now-cancelled Folk on the Rocks music festival would be a perfect place for the disease to spread, she said. Even events in the home likely won't be allowed to return anytime soon, she said. 

As for a return to "normal?" — Kandola says that will have to wait for a vaccine.   


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