People who make threats toward the NWT’s Covid-19 patients will be investigated and “met with enforcement,” the territory’s chief public health officer warned on Saturday.
On Friday, the small community of Fort Resolution was identified as the location of the NWT’s fourth case of Covid-19 – despite the NWT government’s efforts to suppress that information on the grounds of patient privacy.
Chief Louis Balsillie of the Deninu Kue First Nation first made the location public. Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn later confirmed it.
The patient is now in hospital in Yellowknife.
At a Saturday news conference, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola reiterated her government would never identify a small community with a Covid-19 case.
Worrying that people who test positive are at risk of being “abused, shunned, and threatened,” she pointed to cases elsewhere in Canada where some residents have tried to identify individuals with Covid-19, then issued threats toward those people and their families.
Anyone found to have done that in the NWT will be pursued, Dr Kandola said.
“Anything that puts someone in harm will be met with enforcement. Threats against someone, threats against their family, their personal property, that would be investigated,” Kandola told reporters.
“We are bound by oath to maintain the confidentiality of our patients, despite other people identifying and speaking on Facebook. We can never divulge patient information publicly or reveal any information that could locate that patient.”
Kandola said online reactions directing fear and anger at people with Covid-19 would make others with the disease “afraid to come forward” and more likely to “quietly stay home.”
That would make diagnosing the disease, isolating people, and preventing transmission of Covid-19 significantly harder, and more people would be at risk.
“If you react with compassion, it will help other people come forward,” Kandola said.
‘I don’t have to tell the mayor about your STI status’
Speaking to Cabin Radio on Friday evening, Kandola said community leaders will not be told by her office if a Covid-19 case is identified in their community.
“It would be a breach of confidentiality. I don’t have to tell the mayor about someone’s STI status or tuberculosis status,” she said.
Instead, she said community leaders should be modelling best practices for their residents – such as making sure staff stay at home if sick, encouraging social distancing, and discouraging mass gatherings.
Kandola has so far declined to directly address Chief Balsillie’s decision to name his community as the location of a Covid-19 patient. Balsillie, in direct contradiction to Kandola, asserted he had a right to know immediately if a local case was confirmed.
The chief said he had first heard news of the case when other residents reported seeing healthcare workers in white hazmat suits escorting the patient to a medevac bound for Yellowknife.
Asked if it was realistic to expect the identities of small communities with Covid-19 cases to remain undisclosed, given the possibility of people in hazmat suits entering and being witnessed by residents, Kandola said she could not comment.
On Saturday, returning to the topic, she said abuse of patients who tested positive had been seen “this week in our own communities, and we’ve seen it in countless other public health crises in the world, from HIV to Ebola.”
Fort Resolution’s mayor seeks ‘necessary disclosure’
Meanwhile, in Fort Resolution, the community’s mayor joined Chief Balsillie in questioning the territorial government’s approach.
Mayor Patrick Simon told Cabin Radio he, his council, and residents “need the necessary disclosure to ensure the health and safety of our community.”
In a statement, Simon asked MLA Norn, the chief public health officer, and the NWT’s ministers to balance “the privacy of patients versus the health and safety of all our residents.”
Simon does not believe the NWT government’s hope that cases in small communities will remain undisclosed is achievable. He feels community leaders will be better-equipped to lead their residents if they are kept informed of new cases, rather than news spreading by word of mouth.
“Time is of the essence, here,” Simon wrote. “We all need to act now.”
Knowing which communities ‘won’t make you safer’
While patients and their communities will never be identified by her office, Kandola said, people who don’t follow the rules could be subject to different measures.
“If a person is not following the rules and there is evidence they are becoming a danger to the community, that information will be shared publicly and they will be forced to comply,” she warned.
She and Premier Caroline Cochrane both sought to reassure residents that small communities are being given all the help they need.
“Small communities are our biggest priority in this pandemic,” said Kandola.
“Our medevac team is staffed up and ready to remove cases from communities whenever necessary. Every single health centre has what is needed.”
Following concerns that some healthcare workers are returning from outside the territory and heading straight to work – as is allowed by an exemption to the travel restrictions – Kandola added: “All nurses are being directed to go straight home from work if they came back to the territory in the past 14 days. They are being screened before they come in.”
Cochrane told residents: “Whatever community you live in, the GNWT is doing everything possible to protect you from Covid-19. Knowing what communities Covid-19 is in will not make you safer. What makes you safer is respecting the orders of the chief public health officer to keep all residents in the NWT safe.
“We should not be surprised. Covid-19 is everywhere in the world. But we don’t have to be discouraged by that.
“We have been preparing for weeks and we know what we have to do. Be vigilant on behalf of yourselves and your loved ones.”