The president of the Northwest Territories Medical Association is calling for an end to social distancing requirements within the territory, saying they’ve caused more damage than Covid-19.
As first reported by CBC, Dr Andrew Kotaska outlined his concerns in a six-page letter to territorial health officials on June 21. He said while social distancing measures were “prudent” at the start of the pandemic, he believes they are now “unnecessary” and causing “increasing harm.”
“The detrimental health, social, and financial effects of social distancing are mounting, while the damage done by the Covid virus itself has been nil,” he wrote. “A fresh look at the pandemic is warranted.”
According to Kotaska, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist, that harm includes decreased access to social, emotional, and professional supports; increases in domestic violence and substance use; decreased quality of education; delayed diagnosis of other diseases; and less mobility for Elders.
In his letter, Kotaska argued social distancing is no longer necessary as the territory has not had a confirmed case of Covid-19 in two months and has developed robust testing capability, contact tracing infrastructure, and self-isolation protocols.
He noted more is now known about Covid-19 and said the public is familiar with social distancing protocols if they need to be reintroduced.
There have been five confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the NWT, all related to travel outside the territory. All cases were declared recovered by the territory’s chief public health officer by April 20.
As of July 2, 2,644 tests had been completed in the NWT and an additional 65 were awaiting results.
‘At risk of losing credibility’
Kotaska said jurisdictions should take “individual, nuanced approaches depending on local and regional circumstances.” Some restrictions, he said, are less relevant for more isolated locations with no cases of Covid-19.
“Restrictions that make sense for England, central Ontario, and Quebec do not make sense for New Zealand, PEI, or the NWT,” he wrote.
“The Office of the Chief Public Health Officer is at risk of losing its credibility. Many people are ignoring restrictions that no longer make sense, instinctively appreciating that the risk from Covid is currently very low in the territory.”
Kotaska is recommending that the Northwest Territories follow New Zealand’s approach.
On June 7, New Zealand officials declared that the country had eliminated Covid-19 and lifted internal restrictions while maintaining border controls. Shortly afterward, two new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the country.
According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, as of July 2, there were 18 active cases of Covid-19 in the country with one case in hospital. Since the pandemic began, New Zealand has had a total of 1,180 cases, 350 probable cases, and 22 deaths from Covid-19.
In the NWT, Kotaska argued, schools, businesses, restaurants, and sports facilities should reopen without social distancing restrictions while travel restrictions remain in place.
He said improved hand washing, disinfection, testing, and preparing the public for the next case of Covid-19 are more effective precautionary measures.
“The NWT’s geography and early quick action by Public Health have blessed the NWT with a Covid-free period,” he said. “We should use it wisely to allow NWT residents to regain mental, physical, emotional, and financial strength – to build resilience for a time when social distancing measures might be needed to combat actual community spread of Covid.”
Measures ‘backed by best practices’
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer, said people must understand that hundreds of new cases of Covid-19 are reported in Canada every day. That means there’s always a risk for the spread of the disease in the NWT, he said.
Westwick said the government plans to meet with the NWT Medical Association next week to discuss the concerns outlined in the letter.
“We believe our public health measures are backed up by best practices in the field, but we are always willing to listen,” he said.
The NWT Medical Association did not return Cabin Radio’s request for comment.
Northwest Territories business groups have also called for the territory to “strike a better balance” between public health and reopening the economy including easing restrictions on travellers. In a public letter on June 25, they said while putting the territory into “an induced coma” has stopped the spread of Covid-19, it has had negative impacts on the minerals, aviation, and tourism and hospitality industries.
In response to that letter, Premier Caroline Cochraine said the health and safety of the territory was a priority.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Officer said the territory had no plans to alter travel restrictions.