The benefits of isolation
NUNAVUT DOESN’T HAVE A SINGLE CONFIRMED CASE OF THE CORONAVIRUS
Nunavut is the only province or territory in Canada that doesn’t have a confirmed case of COVID-19, a situation that’s a result of the difficulty of getting to the territory, the exclusion of non-residents from visiting and strict public health measures.
“We’ve taken the most dramatic, aggressive steps on seclusion in the country,” said George Hickes, health minister for Nunavut, in an interview. “Really, we have only four points of entry into the territory unless you’re coming up by snowmobile or dog team.”
Meanwhile, the territory’s sole member of Parliament, New Democrat Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, requesting the closure of the health infrastructure gap in the province.
“Nunavummiut have consistently seen that federal government supports are not equitably delivered in our territory,” she wrote in her letter.
The territory has followed, in broad strokes, many of the same COVID-19 preventive measures that other jurisdictions in Canada have introduced, such as barring visitors from long-term care facilities and having the territory’s nearly 40,000 residents maintain physical distance from one another.
“The biggest lesson of this is, act aggressively, fast. I think we’ve led the charge in just about every category that you want to talk about,” Hickes said.
Qaqqaq, who was not available for an interview Thursday, wrote in her letter to Trudeau that there are material conditions that make confronting the COVID-19 pandemic challenging in the territory: Many people live in overcrowded, mouldy housing, and there’s a general lack of food and housing security.
“Nunavummiut need to know that the federal government is taking the necessary steps to address these fundamental health concerns, which allow infectious diseases to spread in our communities,” she wrote.
Hickes said Nunavut does have some advantages with a generally young population, but there is also a vulnerable population, such as a high number of people with tuberculosis.
“If it gets into that demographic ... it could be disastrous,” Hickes said. However, the experience of dealing with tuberculosis, Hickes said, also means the territory is experienced in dealing with contact tracing — key to tracking down those who have been close to a person who has fallen ill. Hickes said Patty Hajdu, the federal minister of health, has been receptive to any requests the territory has made.
All total, 369 people have been under investigation in the territory for COVID-19; 114 of them have been cleared, said Premier Joe Savikataaq, on Wednesday.
Still, there are challenges facing the territory: Nunavut depends heavily on Edmonton, Yellowknife, Winnipeg and Ottawa for medical care.
There’s one hospital in Iqaluit, the capital, and there is no ICU capacity. While Qaqqaq wrote that there are seven ventilators in the territory, Hickes said that most COVID-19 cases needing ventilation or intubation would need to be evacuated.
Like the Northwest Territories — but unlike Yukon — Nunavut has more or less shut its borders to the rest of Canada. Air travel is the only way to get there. This, in part, made it easier for a travel ban to be put in place and maintained.
As of March 24, the province barred all non-residents from flying into the territory. There are also stringent measures in place for travel within the province, and for essential workers receiving clearance to come to the territory for work. As well, the territory has said that if there are positive cases confirmed, the community will be identified.
Said Savikataaq: “All over Canada now the problem is community infections ... that’s the last thing we want here in Nunavut.”
Residents who have been in the south must self-isolate at government-designated quarantine sites in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa or Yellowknife before they are allowed to return to the territory. As of April Tuesday, 431 people were isolated — 246 of them out-of-territory on medical travel.
“They’re under very strict self-isolation rules,” said Hickes. “At the end of the day, I think the majority of people acknowledge that it is for the safety of their communities, not just for themselves, and for the territory as a whole.”