Hay River has been under a boil-water advisory for the past 49 days, bringing the town’s total to more than 100 days under similar advisories this year.
One of the territory’s four isolation hubs, Hay River has since March hosted people from smaller NWT communities who must – under pandemic public health orders – isolate for 14 days in a larger centre before travelling on.
Some people who spent two weeks self-isolating in Hay River say it wasn’t always obvious that they should be boiling their water. They describe a situation that felt confusing to navigate.
(The boil-water advisory was, at last, lifted on Tuesday, shortly after this report was first published.)
Reg Bellefontaine, a Fort Simpson resident who self-isolated in Hay River from mid-September until early October, drove back to the NWT from Halifax. He says he was unaware of the boil-water advisory when he re-entered the territory.
“I didn’t know that when I got here and I did actually drink some, and I wasn’t pleased when I found out that you couldn’t,” Bellefontaine said.
“There’s a lack of information being given to residents or to the people that are coming in.”
The cause of the advisory is “high turbidity,” or muddy water. High water levels this year have caused more soil and debris than usual to get into the water, making it unsuitable for drinking without first being boiled.
The advisory is precautionary – there haven’t been any illnesses yet associated with this year’s water issues. Even so, health authorities recommend people boil their water for at least one minute before drinking it or using it to preparing food, make ice, or brush their teeth.
The Town of Hay River hopes the latest boil-water advisory, which is formally issued by the territorial government, will end soon.
But after more than a third of a year, the advisories are something of a constant in residents’ lives. So who’s remembering to tell newcomers?
Who’s communicating the advisory?
Hay River’s senior administrative officer, Glenn Smith, says territorial public health officials are responsible for ensuring those in self-isolation know they are under a boil-water advisory.
While town says it has used social media, council meetings, partnerships with some organizations, and its own staff to distribute information about the advisory, it acknowledges those isolating may be harder to reach.
“We have not directly targeted communication to those in isolation,” the town told Cabin Radio by email. “We do not have contact information for them.”
Damien Healy, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, said in a statement: “Hay River is a relatively small town and word travels fast.”
Healy argues the advisory has been posted on social media, various government websites, and in news reports.
Former chief of the Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ First Nation Kenya Norwegian has had to travel between Edmonton and the NWT for the past several months to receive medical treatment, self-isolating a total of six times.
She says she was unaware of the boil-water advisory until the second day of her isolation, when she saw the advisory posted in a building.
The territorial government says those posters are available throughout centres in Hay River and provide information about how to get additional water.
“Individual bottles or cases of six or 12 bottles of water are available at no charge,” a statement from the territorial government read.
“During orientation at the Hay River isolation centre, new guests are informed that extra water can be requested from an isolation centre coordinator at any time.”
How are people getting water?
Terry Rowe, general manager of the town’s Ptarmigan Inn, said anywhere from 30 to 60 people can find themselves self-isolating at Hay River’s various centres at any one time.
The Ptarmigan Inn serves as the caterer for people in self-isolation in the community. It provides one bottle of water per meal to each individual.
At the Ptarmigan Inn itself, Rowe says, those self-isolating can ask the front desk for an additional bottle of water, which they will bring to them.
Currently, there are no other drinks offered on its menu. Coffee and tea are available in each room according to the territorial government.
A spokesperson for the territorial government said each room is equipped with a kettle and coffee machine. Rowe said rooms at the Ptarmigan only have a coffee machine to boil water in.
Mini-fridges and vending machines can also be used to obtain drinks at the user’s expense, the territorial government said.
“Guests may also have beverages included in grocery orders from external sources in Hay River,” the territory added.
Norwegian says the water in her isolation centre, even after boiling, was still “pretty bad.” She asked a friend in the area to drop off bottled water instead.
“Some meals we didn’t get the water,” she said. “It was come-and-go, I guess.”
Food also a concern
Norwegian and Bellefontaine both said they struggled with the food provided to them when they were in isolation, expressing concern about the amount of fresh produce available over the course of the two weeks.
“It’s not your daily source of food you should have. It’s something that is a treat once in a while, but not to eat every day,” Norwegian said.
Rowe says the menu was approved by the territorial government, which did not specify requirements related to protein or vegetables. He said the hotel tries hard to provide balanced meals.
There are options for those with vegetarian or gluten-free diets, he said, and guests can call 24 hours in advance to make substitutions.
Norwegian said her medical treatment played a role in her appetite and diet, so she found meals tough to manage.
“With the kind of food they were offering, I don’t think I ate any of the product that was delivered. And I felt really bad at the wastage of the food,” she said.
Norwegian said she is concerned for Elders who may have to go through self-isolation, as no traditional food is offered and menus often feature fried or spiced items.
Is the advisory almost over?
At the Hay River town council meeting on October 19, director of public works Mike Auge said water quality is improving but remains not quite up to the required standard at the town reservoir.
Auge speculated this is because water in the reservoir has been sitting for longer. He believes good news is on the way.
“Again, that depends on the test results,” he said.
“It’s looking good this week.”
If the water quality does reach a suitable level, the town will be able to pass the results on to the Department of Health and Social Services, Auge said.
The department, he said, holds ultimate authority to determine if water is once again safe for regular consumption.
The advisory was subsequently lifted the following morning.