Who covers the cost of NWT isolation centres is being debated by the NWT government, communities, and business leaders – as is where people should be allowed to isolate.
The changes could mean some residents are asked to pay their own isolation bill on returning to the territory. The race is on to finalize any change in policy ahead of the holiday season, for which some residents are already planning trips despite a surge in Covid-19 cases to the south.
Critics say any decision to charge residents for isolation will disproportionately affect people in the territory’s smallest communities.
At the moment, almost anyone entering the NWT must isolate for 14 days.
If they live in the four largest communities of Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, or Inuvik, they can isolate at home. If they live anywhere smaller, they must isolate at a government-run centre in one of those four hubs.
A person isolating at a GNWT-run centre costs the territory approximately $4,000 for a 14-day period, accounting for 54 percent of the NWT’s spending on its public health pandemic response.
Those figures come from a discussion paper released by the territory on October 26.
The paper states the NWT government is committed to finding cost savings related to the pandemic “and it makes the most sense to start with the biggest slice of the pie,” referring to the cost of isolation.
Entitled Self-Isolation and Our Communities, the paper outlines alternatives such as having more people isolate at home instead.
That would require allowing more people to isolate in smaller communities, where healthcare services are not as robust – a risk the current system is designed to avoid.
Another option, therefore, is to start charging residents who make non-essential trips outside the territory and need to use an isolation centre on their return.
The territory says it is trying to “strike the right balance of providing more freedom to allow individuals to isolate at home in their home community, maintaining protective measures with initiatives like targeted screening, and looking for ways to reduce costs.”
Businesses query GNWT’s approach
The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce last week published a letter supporting the idea that those who leave the NWT for personal, non-essential reasons should pay for their own stay in an isolation centre on their return, instead of placing the financial burden on the taxpayer.
The chamber said its members have had to cover the cost of employees’ isolation on many occasions, in accordance with existing GNWT policy.
The letter described companies who could not afford to bring in staff to complete projects, as well as staff abandoning work in the NWT and turning around before their isolation period ended.
“If the GNWT is going to continue to pay the self-isolation costs for an individual’s discretionary travel, then we suggest that the GNWT consider providing financial support to help offset these mandatory costs for businesses,” the chamber concluded.
The NWT Chamber of Commerce, in a letter of its own, said the “blanket covering of costs” for NWT residents at isolation centres “needs to be rectified.”
“No other jurisdiction, including Nunavut, blindly pays for their residents to isolate,” the NWT chamber added.
Unfair to smaller communities?
Sean Whelly, the mayor of Fort Simpson, believes charging for some stays at isolation centres will be unfair to residents of smaller communities.
If Fort Simpson residents wish to take a vacation, community members have argued, they have no choice but to isolate in a larger hub and – if the policy changes – foot the bill.
Residents of those hub communities, however, could take a vacation at any time and isolate at home on their return, for free.
“It really only affects the people in the smaller communities,” Whelly said.
One way to fix that would be to let Fort Simpson residents isolate at home too, if they chose – expanding the list of communities where isolation is allowed.
However, while Fort Simpson has expressed interest in letting more medical travellers isolate in their home community, Whelly thinks opening that up to all returning travellers may be a step too far.
“Smaller communities are scared. They’re not exactly willing to take back all the residents who can safely isolate. They’re still worried,” he said.
The mayor said the cost of living in smaller communities can be higher than in the four hubs. He says making residents of those communities pay out of pocket for isolation, in addition to what they already spend to live in Fort Simpson, will be hard on some.
He also expressed concern at how a vacation will be defined if residents are asked to pay.
“You can call a lot of things a holiday,” Whelly said.
“Going down to see a sick relative – is that a holiday? Who’s going to say it wasn’t?”
Mental health a concern
Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, recently told the territory’s legislature some Elders who stay in isolation centres feel as though they are experiencing “residential school all over again.”
Norn said the centres were having a negative impact on the mental health of those who stay in them.
“We are in a mental health crisis in the North that needs immediate attention from this government,” he said.
The territorial government told Cabin Radio it is still finalizing decisions regarding any changes and mental health is a concern being factored in.
“With experiences gleaned from around 25,000 self-isolation plans, we know that isolating away from home communities is taking a mental and social toll. But we also know there are real risks and understandable anxieties in some communities,” a spokesperson for the territorial government said.
With the holiday season approaching, the territory says it is trying to determine what the updated changes might be and when to release them.
“We understand that Christmas is coming up, and we are working hard to finalize those policies with as much time for planning as is possible,” the spokesperson said.