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NWT stands behind social distancing after medical group meeting


The president of the NWT Medical Association says a meeting with territorial health officials started a “constructive dialogue” that he hopes will lead to changes in pandemic restrictions.

Dr Andrew Kotaska met with Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, and officials from the Department of Health and Social Services on July 10.

He had earlier written a letter calling for an end to social distancing requirements in the territory.

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In the six-page letter – obtained and published by the CBC – Kotaska stated social distancing was “unnecessary” and causing “mounting” health, social, and financial harms. He said the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer was “at risk of losing credibility” for restrictions that “no longer make sense.” 

These discussions are healthy. Policy should never be made in a bubble.

UMESH SUTENDRA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES

On Tuesday, Kotaska told Cabin Radio the meeting with health officials was “overall quite positive” and all parties agreed the continuation of travel restrictions, self-isolation requirements, and monitoring is important. 

They disagreed, however, when it came to social distancing.

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Umesh Sutendra, a representative from the department, said by email that the government still believes social distancing is the best practice to keep people safe, “much like wearing a seatbelt while in a moving vehicle.”

There have been no changes to the territory’s recovery plan. 

Suntendra said the government will continue to review its public health measures and keep an “ongoing dialogue” with health practitioners. 

“These discussions are healthy. Policy should never be made in a bubble,” he wrote.

Kotaska said he hopes last week’s meeting will “inform a path that will really optimize the health – both physical, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual, cultural – of NWT residents.”

He believes jurisdictions are now better-equipped to respond to Covid-19 and should take individual, customized approaches to pandemic recovery. He noted the NWT has developed a testing strategy and contact tracing, while more than 100 days have passed since the NWT’s last confirmed coronavirus case.

Kotaska would like to see the territory take a similar approach to New Zealand, which has a four-level alert system. Kotaska compared this to fire hazard levels in the NWT.

“Unlike New Zealand, we haven’t had a dry run,” he said. “There’s still concerns about how effective our infrastructure will be dealing with [community spread], if and when it comes.”

No easy cookbook’ to deal with Covid-19

Kotaska recently said an “overwhelming majority” of physicians in the territory supported his letter, which was shared with the medical association’s 84 members by email.

However, one health practitioner – who requested anonymity as their employer had not authorized them to speak on the matter – said they felt the letter undermined the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The practitioner said by email the letter was a “substantial public statement” that should have been raised and voted on at an association meeting.

“NWT residents may lose confidence in the health system if it appears the doctors are arguing and not supporting our head doctors,” they wrote. 

“We are fortunate that the small number of cases we had did not result in additional infections. Kotaska should know, as a physician, that prevention is better than treatment.”

Kotaska said the medical association’s letter was never intended to be public but to bring the concerns of physicians to health officials to start a conversation.

He said when the letter was published, it “potentially confused the message” that physicians and public health officials both care about the health of NWT residents. 

“There’s no easy cookbook here for how to approach Covid,” he said. 

“Nobody thinks this is an easy decision.” 

The practitioner also questioned the evidence behind Kotaska’s arguments that social distancing is causing harm in the territory. Kotaska’s letter claimed restrictions have led to increases in domestic violence, substance use, and apprehensions of at-risk children.

Kotaska told Cabin Radio those statements were based on anecdotal reports of what physicians have been “observing on the front lines.”

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