The NWT’s chief public health officer on Wednesday said it will be at least “four to six weeks” before any pandemic restrictions are eased, but the return to normality will take much, much longer.
The territory will also shortly introduce at least one new public health order that adds more requirements for people currently exempt from pandemic travel restrictions.
Dr Kami Kandola told MLAs: “We’re looking at the next four to six weeks of looking at if we get any more cases, if there is any community spread.”
She said: “If we do move to a point where we can relax measures, you have to realize it’s going to be a new normal. Until we get the vaccine, no one in Canada is going to go back to normal, if normal means having Folk on the Rocks or going to see a movie. That’s not going to happen.
“A new normal means you can go out on the land, go camping, go get your hair cut, do takeout. These things can happen, we can relax those public health measures. But we can’t go back to normal the way we had defined it, where there are mass gatherings and potential ‘super-spread’ events.”
A vaccine is thought by experts to be 12 to 18 months away, though there is no telling for sure.
The territory has already committed to producing a more detailed plan within a week for its “exit strategy” from restrictions.
Dr Kandola said a new order “later this week” would give workers currently exempt from travel restrictions some additional legally binding instructions.
Healthcare workers, supply workers like long-haul truckers, mine workers, construction workers, and corrections officers are currently among those exempt from the need to self-isolate for 14 days after crossing into the NWT.
Under an order issued on March 21, virtually all other returning NWT residents or visitors are required to isolate for two weeks in one of four larger communities on arrival into the territory.
Dr Kandola said the new order would add “compliance requirements” for exempted workers, making clear they “are not free from taking the necessary measures” to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading within the territory.
The order is expected to more forcefully require that previously exempted workers self-isolate unless a specific reason exists for them not to do so. The exact detail of the order was not given.
Discussing how campgrounds can open
Meanwhile, Kandola is to meet with territorial parks officials later on Wednesday to discuss ways in which park facilities like campgrounds can be opened up for residents.
“I’ve always been a proponent of going outside and that includes looking at what the risk is of these campgrounds,” said Kandola.
“A trailer or cabin is still considered a home … but outdoor gatherings where people can keep their distance? A quota around accessing parts of campgrounds? These are things we want to discuss.
“We want NWT residents to enjoy the summer, we want them to be outdoors. We will do everything possible to enable that safely.”
Virus would ‘jump for joy’ at gatherings
Kandola revealed the planned additional measures for exempted workers on a video link with faltering audio. She was taking part in what is now a weekly Wednesday-morning briefing for the NWT’s regular MLAs.
The measures will also include upgraded tracking of who comes into the NWT, designed to help with contact tracing should further cases of Covid-19 emerge. Kandola said “increasing public health surveillance” was a priority.
She said the eventual aim was to tighten border security to the point where greater freedom might be available within the territory.
However, Kandola warned, some restrictions – like those on mass gatherings – are likely to be in place for a long time to come.
“The virus is a stealth virus,” she said. “What we’re seeing with the data is you can spread the virus 48 hours before you even develop symptoms. The [US] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying one in four can be asymptomatic. We also know the greatest risk of spread is early on: when people have relatively mild symptoms, you can still spread it.”
Maintaining distance between people, Kandola continued, would have to be “the underlying principle” of all NWT measures taken for the foreseeable future.
“There are some measures we can relax but some will be later, such as mass gatherings,” she said.
“If you were the virus, you would jump for joy to get into a mass gathering where there is no physical distancing and you can infect many people.”
All indoor gatherings of any size remain banned in the NWT. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, all of whom must remain two metres apart from others.