Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
“This is the moment when we start to look at preserving our capacity.”
Dr AnneMarie Pegg, the NWT’s medical director, said on Monday health authorities were examining whether to scale back some services as a Covid-19 outbreak in the Sahtu grows.
The NWT is already feeling the strain of a nationwide nursing staff shortage. At Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, only two intensive care beds are available for critically ill patients, down from the normal four.
Now, managers are assessing how the system will cope if a full-blown outbreak develops.
So far, only two people infected as part of the Sahtu outbreak have been transported to Yellowknife for further assessment. Neither those two cases nor any others have required hospital treatment, Pegg said.
But she acknowledged the need to prepare an already strained health service for what may lie ahead. Privately, nurses at Stanton say they have been so stretched even without Covid-19 that it is hard to imagine how the service would cope if severely ill victims of the pandemic were to arrive in numbers.
“We are looking now at the possibility of postponing, in the short term, some non-emergency procedures that could potentially have an impact on the number of people hospitalized,” Pegg told reporters at a Monday news conference.
“For example, if someone has a surgery booked and they’re expected to have a hospital stay after, there is an evaluation being done now with acute care teams as to whether or not those types of procedures are appropriate to be reduced.”
Pegg said staff would, yet again, look at whether more “virtual care” can be delivered, entrusting patient care to specialists potentially thousands of kilometres away who are able to work remotely.
The NWT must be sure, she said, it can “respond to this outbreak and to this increased number of cases.”
The medical challenges do not end with treatment.
Neither Fort Good Hope nor Colville Lake have particularly strong vaccination uptake – in Colville Lake, fewer than one in every five adults is fully vaccinated – but now the territorial government must figure out how to rapidly vaccinate more residents in communities that are under containment, meaning gatherings are banned and travel strongly discouraged.
“We’re looking at how we can provide vaccine to the communities that are under the containment order,” Pegg said.
“For those communities that are not under the containment order, please go get vaccinated. Everyone who is vaccinated reduces the pool of vulnerable people and reduces the number of people who may, in fact, have to require acute care services.
“That’s our best protection, not only individually and not only for the community, but to protect the resources that we have.”
Julie Green, the health minister, promised residents that services in Alberta would pick up the slack if the NWT’s healthcare system finds itself severely tested.
“We depend on Alberta for their medical capacity to help us with acute care, even when our ICU is up to full speed,” said Green.
“Certainly, that is the case now. People who we are unable to help in the NWT will be medevaced to Alberta for treatment there.
“And so while we may not be able to offer that level of service within the territory, that level of service is available.”