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Coronavirus
Yellowknife

Q&A: Yellowknife’s Covid-19 cluster, isolation rules, and charges


It’s been a long week in Yellowknife. Almost 100 people are isolating after coming into contact with what is now a cluster of five Covid-19 cases in the city.

A sixth case, related to international travel, is separate. There are also two active cases in Fort Smith and one was confirmed in Inuvik on Monday night, while a flight exposure warning was issued.

On Monday, NWT Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola held a news conference at which she addressed a wide range of questions about the cluster in Yellowknife, the measures in place to contain the spread of the virus, and how those might change.

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However, she declined to take questions regarding breaches of her public health orders. She spoke a day after Premier Caroline Cochrane said there must be “consequences” if rules are broken, and three days after Cabin Radio reported Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn had visited the NWT legislature a day before the end of his isolation.

On this page, we’ve looked at some common questions related to the latest cluster and paired them with answers given by Dr Kandola, plus other answers we’ve been able to glean from public health officials in recent days.

I’m in Yellowknife. Am I at risk?

If you haven’t heard from public health yet, you are almost certainly not at elevated risk. (There’s still a pandemic going on, so don’t take that to mean the risk is zero. Keep following the usual rules.)

“Parents are being sent today specific directions and being reminded how to negotiate self-isolation with their teen or child,” said Kandola on Monday. “If you have not been notified, go about your daily routine … while following the public health guidelines we have stressed throughout the pandemic.”

Kandola said sending contacts of the cluster into isolation was “more than anything else, a safety measure” designed to stop the cluster becoming an outbreak. It’s worth emphasizing that there is not yet an outbreak in Yellowknife.

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“Right now, we have a map,” said Kandola, referring to her team’s ability to readily connect all five cases in the cluster to each other.

“We know who is connected to whom, and that matters. It means we have some control over the situation.”

How many contacts are there?

There are 90. Of those, 85 have been tested for Covid-19. Many have already tested negative and others are awaiting their results. Five had yet to be tested as of Monday morning.

Being a contact means you’re someone who “had an interaction” with an infected person, according to the NWT’s health authority. Public health assesses whether or not someone is a contact on a case-by-case basis. Kandola made it clear on Monday that she felt confident contacts of the cluster had been quickly traced.

How long do the contacts have to isolate?

For 14 days after their potential exposure. The NWT’s health authority sent a letter to all contacts that explains this in more detail, including what the ramifications are for contacts’ household members.

Is this a variant?

We currently have no idea which form of the virus responsible for Covid-19 is involved.

All positive tests get sent to a southern lab to test for variants of concern. So far, the GNWT has not reported the results of any tests involving the Yellowknife cluster. The results may not yet be back.

On Monday evening, Kandola’s office said the public would be updated “if a variant of concern is identified.”

Norn said last week he had been told by “a medical expert,” who was not identified, that some variants of Covid-19 could remain in the body for up to 17 days. Asked about this on Monday, Kandola said all recommendations from federal health experts still pointed to a 14-day isolation period being adequate.

“The majority of infections, if you’re incubating, occur within the first five to seven days. The second week, you would have a lower risk of presenting with the virus,” Kandola said.

“Worldwide, they have used 14 days as their cut-off for incubation.”

She acknowledged that there “could be a small, small percentage” of cases where the infectious period extends beyond 14 days of isolation, but said requiring the vast majority of people to isolate for any longer than two weeks would be unfair and unnecessary.

Is there community spread?

No. Community spread is a specific term: it refers to when cases of the virus appear that can’t be readily explained. For example, if a person with no recent travel history develops Covid-19 despite apparently not having crossed paths with anyone else who travelled or who was sick, that’s community spread – it has no obvious origin.

All five cluster cases could be directly connected to each other by public health, either through a clear connection to travel (Norn, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, has explained his case’s direct travel connection) or through exposure to an existing case in the cluster.

Will there be any charges?

The territorial government says it will not discuss investigations or charges against anyone.

This appears to mark a change in policy. When, at the start of the pandemic, NNSL reported resident Mike Harrison had declared he would flout the NWT’s travel restrictions to drive to his Dehcho home, the chief public health officer issued a fiercely worded statement denouncing Harrison and concluding: “Needless to say, we will be investigating this matter.”

On Monday, both Kandola and GNWT communications staff said they would not make any comment regarding Norn or any other active investigations.

“While we understand there is public interest in the details of any potential investigations conducted by the Covid Secretariat Compliance and Enforcement section, we are not able to comment on any potential investigations nor share any personal health information, including details of self-isolation plans,” read a form response issued by the territorial government. (Details of isolation plans and personal health information had not been requested by Cabin Radio.)

“We also can’t confirm or deny if an investigation is actioned until it becomes part of the court process. As you can appreciate, doing so would hinder a potential investigation and/or breach privacy restrictions under the Public Health Act,” the response concluded.

In March 2020, Kandola announced the opening of an investigation into Harrison’s conduct long before the case became part of the court process, not least because it never did. As the CBC reported, the investigation was closed in August 2020 and charges were never laid.

That’s despite the fact that behind the scenes, Kandola had pressed for action. The CBC, reporting internal emails through an access to information request, said Kandola had written to colleagues on April 2, 2020: “In the public eye, it will be important we lay charges.” (It turned out the NWT did not, at the time, have the legal mechanism in place to do so. The matter was dropped.)

On Monday, the territorial government denied a double standard was at play in the way it had treated Harrison versus the way it was responding to the case involving the MLA.

“There are differences between the two situations that you raise,” GNWT communications manager Dawn Ostrem told Cabin Radio by email. “Mike Harrison came out to state publicly that he would not follow the public health orders in the media.”

Ultimately, the territorial court docket will disclose whether or not any resident in the NWT is charged regarding breaches of public health orders. The docket, which lists upcoming court appearances, is how the Monkey Tree Pub’s ticket for a public health breach related to Covid-19 came to light. The territorial government did not publicize that charge. (The Monkey Tree is contesting the fine.)

Norn has not commented since an interview early on Friday in which he set out his account of how he isolated. Calls and texts from Cabin Radio have not been returned. The CBC and NNSL said on Monday they, too, had been unable to reach the MLA.

What’s the timeline of the cluster?

In coming forward late on Thursday, April 22, Norn confirmed he was the first publicized case in the cluster. That case had been announced by the NWT government on Wednesday, April 21. Here’s a timeline with all the information we have:

Thursday, April 1: Norn said he travelled to Alberta to deal with what he termed a family emergency.

Sunday, April 4: Norn said he returned to the NWT. In a statement sent to newsrooms on April 23, he said he crossed the border in the late afternoon or early evening of April 4, suggesting formal isolation at his Yellowknife home would have begun later that night.

Friday, April 16: A bonfire party is held at Yellowknife’s sandpits. (On April 23, the chief public health officer issues an exposure advisory for this party in connection with the cluster.)

Saturday, April 17: Norn, a day before his isolation is due to end, heads to the NWT legislature. As it’s a Saturday, the building is practically empty but a security guard on duty at the time is subsequently sent into isolation as a precaution. Later that night, a bonfire party is again held at Yellowknife’s sandpits. (This, again, becomes the subject of an exposure advisory on April 23.)

Sunday, April 18: This is the day on which Norn’s isolation ended, according to the timeline he provided. To have completed 14 full days, isolation would have ended in the evening. Either Norn or a family member with Covid-19 attended the Racquet Club gym that day (it’s not clear when – the gym is usually open until 8pm on Sundays), resulting in several people being identified as contacts.

Monday, April 19: Norn goes to the Taste of Saigon restaurant – a day after his isolation had ended, according to the timeline he provided. That trip later triggers an exposure advisory for 3pm-4:30pm that day. Later, the NWT issues a call for recent travellers to get a Covid-19 test because there is unexplained coronavirus in Yellowknife’s latest sewage sample (which sampled the city’s wastewater between April 14 and April 17).

Tuesday, April 20: Having seen the call for recent travellers to be tested, Norn said he received a Covid-19 test on this date.

Wednesday, April 21: Norn said he was told on this date that he had tested positive for Covid-19. He said he immediately returned to isolation.

Thursday, April 22: A second Covid-19 case is announced in Yellowknife, this one connected to École St Patrick High School. Late in the evening, a statement from Norn identifying himself for the first time as having tested positive for Covid-19 is sent to some, but not all newsrooms.

Friday, April 23: 7:50am – In an interview with Cabin Radio, Norn says he isolated appropriately for the full 14 days yet remained infectious beyond that point. He suggests this may have something to do with a variant form of the virus. He says a family member has also tested positive (it’s not 100-percent clear if this family member travelled back to the NWT with Norn on April 4).

9:30am – The Racquet Club gym confirms it was the site of some exposure to Covid-19 related to either Norn or the family member.

1:15pm – It emerges that staff at the NWT legislature have been told Norn visited the building on April 17, prior to his isolation period expiring.

9:10pmTwo more cases connected to the cluster are announced. An exposure warning is issued for the sandpits on April 16 and April 17.

Sunday, April 25: A fifth case connected to the cluster is announced. Premier Caroline Cochrane calls for “compassion and kindness” as concern over Covid-19 grows in Yellowknife, but says there must be “consequences” for people who break the rules.

Why aren’t people tested when they leave isolation?

At the moment, you don’t get tested for Covid-19 on your 14th and final day of isolation in the NWT. Kandola said the current 14-day isolation period is considered “sufficient” without testing at the end.

However, there is some nuance to this.

Firstly, if you take advantage of the new, shorter isolation period for fully vaccinated travellers, you can get a Covid-19 test on your eighth day of isolation. If that comes back negative, you can stop isolating. You need to take the test on day eight in order to activate the chance of leaving isolation sooner.

Secondly, the rules aren’t the same in all communities and in all circumstances.

In smaller communities where there’s no sewage sampling taking place, people who are isolating are asked to take a Covid-19 test on day 12. (Exceptions can be granted that allow people to isolate in small communities, even though that’s ordinarily not allowed. Often, the exceptions are related to medical travel.)

In larger communites, though, Kandola said symptom checks on the 14th day had “worked well” for the NWT so far. (Norn has said he had no symptoms on day 14.)

Are any of the rules changing?

The shorter isolation period for fully vaccinated travellers is still going ahead, as are changes that allow tourists to visit remote destinations in the NWT. But more changes have been put on hold while Yellowknife deals with the cluster. Kandola said now was not the time to start easing any other restrictions.

Is anything else changing?

The GNWT is stepping up sewage sampling in Yellowknife.

Testing will now take place every 24 hours “until we are confident that the signal is decreasing,” said the territorial government on Monday, referring to the level of coronavirus in the sample. Normally, sampling takes place in three-day blocks in Yellowknife.

“Increasing the frequency of testing has been done previously. The GNWT did so in Hay River and Fort Simpson when unexpected positive wastewater signals were detected in their wastewater,” the territorial government said.

The GNWT believes sewage sampling’s role in identifying the current cluster of cases has proved its worth. Previously, some residents had questioned the benefits of the program versus its cost.

“Last week’s unexpected positive wastewater signal in Yellowknife demonstrates the value of our surveillance program. With unexpected positive wastewater signals, public health will take actions, which include recommending testing of those who recently travelled into the community to identify people with Covid-19,” the territory said in a statement to Cabin Radio.

Norn made clear in his Friday interview that he had come forward for a test after seeing the call for tests prompted by the spike in Yellowknife’s sewage sample.

“The wastewater testing program will be in place for at least the next 12 months, pending progression of the pandemic and the role this surveillance activity has in informing the public health response,” the territory concluded.

Has there been any impact on vaccination rates?

Anecdotally, Yellowknife residents have described finding the city’s vaccination clinic busier than they expected in recent days. However, the latest vaccination data shows the number of people getting a shot in the NWT dropped last week.

On Monday, the NWT’s latest figures showed 482 people across the whole territory got their first shot – the second-smallest week-on-week increase since the territory began vaccinating people, and around 150 fewer than in each of the past two weeks.

The number of people across the NWT getting their second shot fell week-on-week from 2,800 to 1,672. Bear in mind that there are lots of factors at play beyond the current cluster: for example, the number of people getting second shots is primarily governed by when they got their first.

Perhaps most importantly, Monday’s update was only to territory-wide data. There was no update for regional vaccination data, making it impossible to tell how the figures changed in Yellowknife specifically. Regional data is due to be updated in a week’s time.

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