With Covid-19 ‘inevitable,’ NWT tries to ramp up phone capacity

Diane Thom, Caroline Cochrane, and Kami Kandola appear at a media briefing on March 18, 2020
Diane Thom, Caroline Cochrane, and Kami Kandola appear at a media briefing on March 18, 2020.

The NWT is urgently seeking ways to improve how it handles calls about Covid-19 as the territory’s chief public health officer said the disease was “inevitable” in the North.

The territory declared a public health emergency earlier on Wednesday but, with 153 negative tests already carried out and at least 119 more still being analyzed, phone systems for people to request a test are becoming jammed.

There remain no positive tests in the NWT to date.

Residents in Yellowknife on Wednesday reported wait times of an hour or more to get through to a healthcare professional at the number provided. Some said they had given up and called other communities’ numbers instead.



“It’s critical that people can access the system in the way that we’re asking them to,” acknowledged Dr Sarah Cook, the NWT health authority’s medical director, at a news conference.

From the GNWT: Numbers to call if you have Covid-19 symptoms

“We recognize the phone issue is a huge one right now,” said Cook. “We are rapidly looking at other options to ramp up our capacity to answer those phone calls and look at other means of receiving that information.”

Cook said the NWT had initially tried to partner with the Alberta 811 medical phone service, only to discover that number is already overwhelmed itself.



Now, the territory is working on redeploying its own staff and introducing new ways for people to request tests or contact Public Health.

“It’s a human resource issue of redeploying people within our system,” said Cook. “We are looking carefully at where we most urgently need people to work, and in what capacities.”

Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, added: “We’re declaring this public emergency now so we can start hiring people, start using our powers, and get ready.”

With the vast majority of countries reporting Covid-19 cases, Kandola said she believed the spread of the disease to the NWT was inevitable.

Tests for Covid-19, which must be shipped to Albeta for laboratory analysis, are currently taking around seven days to produce results. The territory said it “wants to explore” options for accessing quicker coronavirus tests in future.

Kandola and Cook reiterated the importance of calling ahead, even if you have to wait on the phone, before heading to a health centre with any symptoms of Covid-19.

Cook said calling ahead ensured people attending health centres for other reasons could be kept away from those who may exhibit symptoms.