A Northwest Territories MLA on Tuesday queried whether the territory will soon stop sending medical patients to Alberta as the province’s healthcare system battles a sustained surge in Covid-19 cases.
Kevin O’Reilly, the MLA for Yellowknife’s Frame Lake, said news reports from Alberta were “alarming to say the least.” The province had 16,628 active cases of the virus as of Tuesday.
Alberta’s total number of recorded Covid-19 cases more than doubled from 29,000 to 59,000 in November alone.
“People in the health field say the health system in Edmonton and Alberta is under significant strain and, if this continues, it’s going to collapse,” O’Reilly told fellow MLAs at a committee meeting to discuss the NWT’s Covid-19 response.
“At what point do we stop sending people to Alberta for testing or whatever?” O’Reilly asked.
“I think we need to recognize this is a real possibility that could happen in weeks, because Alberta is not doing what it should be doing.”
Alberta last week banned indoor gatherings and limited outdoor gatherings to 10 people. Access to some businesses is restricted in many parts of the province, while masks are mandatory at indoor workplaces in Calgary and Edmonton.
At the same Tuesday committee meeting, the NWT’s chief public health officer – Dr Kami Kandola – painted a grim picture of the crisis facing Alberta.
“They are now crossing into territory where they will be impacting other patients’ care,” Kandola said, describing the rise in demand for intensive care places.
Paraphrasing Alberta’s chief public health officer, Kandola added the province “may reach a critical limit where they may not be able to support their own residents or residents of the NWT who access services in Alberta.”
However, authorities in the NWT do not believe that limit has yet been hit.
Health minister Julie Green, responding to O’Reilly during the meeting, said there was so far no change to the service being offered to NWT patients.
Alberta ordinarily has an agreement with the NWT whereby the territory’s medical travellers – who head south to access surgeries and services not available in the North – are afforded equal rights to Albertans within the provincial healthcare system.
“We are aware the hospital system in Alberta is strained. There has been no change in the service level for NWT residents at this time,” Green said.
“I know people have been deciding not to go to Edmonton for routine medical appointments because they are concerned about the outbreak there, but services continue to be provided.”
Leisure travel was costing $1M a month
Meanwhile, Premier Caroline Cochrane told the committee her government expects to save $1 million per month by transferring the cost of some isolation stays to residents.
In almost all cases, NWT residents must isolate for two weeks on returning to the territory from travel elsewhere. That isolation must take place in one of the territory’s four largest communities. If no other option is available, residents can use space reserved in hotels designated as isolation centres.
On Tuesday, the NWT government said isolation centre use after personal or leisure travel outside the territory would no longer be paid for by the GNWT from January 5, 2021.
Isolation centre use related to medical travel or on compassionate grounds (for example, attending a funeral elsewhere in Canada) will still be funded by the territorial government. The federal government says it is providing many millions of dollars to help cover those costs.
Cochrane said “about half” of the cost of running the isolation centres to date has come from people who were travelling for non-essential reasons. By making this change, she believes isolation centre costs from January 5 until the end of March will drop to around half of what had previously been forecast.
Asked what happened to earlier plans to try to decrease the length of what remains a mandatory two-week isolation, Kandola said it would “not be a prudent response” to ease any restrictions with the pandemic so fiercely striking southern Canada and even other territories.
“We’ve seen, looking at Nunavut, just how quickly you can obtain community-wide spread,” Kandola said, referring to the neighbouring territory’s rapid increase from zero to well over 100 cases of the virus in November.
“Looking at the situation across Canada, looking at the impact it’s having on the healthcare system – intensive care unit beds being full, doctors and nurses being burnt out – I made a decision that relaxing restrictions needed to be postponed,” she said.
“We need to look at maintaining and tightening restrictions on travellers so we can get through the next six weeks.”