'It feels like coercion': Yellowknife family spends nearly a month isolating

The mother of two children who attend N.J. Macpherson School in Yellowknife is speaking out after another parent came forward describing similar frustrations around a communication breakdown between families and health officials over isolation requirements.

‘I feel like we fell through the cracks’ 

From left to right, Jason, John, Sawyer and Nikki Tews-Friesen. The family has been isolating since the beginning of May. (Submitted by Nikki Tews-Friesen)

Nikki Tews-Friesen and her family were hours away from finishing a grueling 24-days of isolation. Then the phone rang.

A public health nurse told her she wouldn't be able to leave, until she was assessed by a doctor for COVID-19.

"I went out ... into our deck and cried," Tews-Friesen said.

"I'm not OK and I don't know who would be OK in that situation."

The mother of two children who attend N.J. Macpherson School in Yellowknife — the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the Northwest Territories during the pandemic — is speaking out after another parent came forward describing similar frustrations of a communication breakdown between families and health officials surrounding isolation requirements.

At least 30 families connected to the school outbreak have been required to undergo an extended isolation.

'It feels like coercion'

Tews-Friesen's 10-year-old son John, who's autistic, tested positive for COVID-19. He is one of 71 cases linked to the school outbreak.

When the family found out, Tews-Friesen said he barricaded himself in the master bathroom.

"I don't think that kid left that room for two weeks," she said.

While she took care of him, her husband looked after their six-year-old son, who slept in a camper. They took shifts using the kitchen.

Eight days in she said they got a call from public health, suggesting she and John move to an isolation centre, separating the family — something they were not prepared to do.

"That's when it was kind of told to us more officially that we were looking at 10 days of isolation for John because he was positive and an additional 14 days for everybody. But in that 14 days, if anybody else got sick, it would start the clock over," she said.

"The takeaway from that conversation was that, because we weren't moving into the isolation centre, we were putting our family at risk, and then with that risk, longer isolation."

"It doesn't feel like informed consent. It feels like coercion," she said.

During their time in isolation, Tews-Friesen took eight COVID-19 tests. She suffers from seasonal allergies and had a sinus infection, and because she displayed more than one symptom of the virus, she had to take two tests every time her family did one. 

On May 26, hours away from completing 24 days in isolation, Tews-Friesen said a public health nurse called her, explaining she could not leave isolation until she was cleared by a doctor.

On Friday, she saw the doctor, took another test, and was finally cleared on Saturday, just in time to celebrate John's 11th birthday. The first thing he wants to do is go fishing with his friends.

The family has remained in isolation together until they were all cleared, out of an abundance of caution. Her kids have yet to return to school.

"I don't want to blame anybody," she said.

"But certainly the disorganization …  not being told consistent information, getting four phone calls a day from different people, all with different information. It's really hard to weed out what is true and what's not true and what we should do and what we shouldn't do.

"I feel like we fell through the cracks." 

Last week, the territory's deputy chief public health officer offered an apology to families for these miscommunications.

On Friday, the territory's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola took to Twitter, writing that because of the large cluster of cases, "we had to be extra vigilant with our processes."

"I know that these past few weeks have been incredibly intense for the many families that had to isolate due to the Yellowknife outbreak, as well as the many healthcare staff [and] other employees involved in responding to the outbreak," she wrote.

"Going into such a strict isolation period on short notice is extremely tough, and I want thank all of you for playing your part and doing the best you could during this unsettling time.

"We were on the verge of having community spread, [but] because of the strength and fortitude of all of you, we were able to contain this highly transmissible variant and our case count is dropping daily."

In an emailed statement from the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO), spokesperson Darren Campbell wrote that the office works closely with regional health authorities to try to ensure they connect with families to address specific concerns.

"We know it is not easy to isolate and not be able to move freely in public places. We understand the impact that having kids out of school can have on a family and on our community," he wrote.

"We recognize that at the outset of the N.J. Macpherson outbreak and throughout the event there were points where the guidance we were issuing caused confusion. For this we apologize.

"This was a difficult scenario as not only did the situation change quickly but also the guidance issued is not always applicable in general to the entire population. What one person needed to do based on their circumstances may not have been the same as what their neighbour needed to do to protect our community."

Tews-Friesen said she doesn't want to criticize health care workers and is grateful this was an isolated outbreak. She said isolating was never the issue.

"I don't need a thank you or an apology, I [needed] clear communication and clear direction and that wasn't there, she said.

"Your apology is nice, but let's do better."