The Northwest Territories’ health minister says she expects Covid-19 case numbers in the territory to escalate significantly as the week progresses.
Julie Green told Cabin Radio she was using May’s NJ Macpherson School outbreak in Yellowknife as a guide to how the current outbreak, centred on the territory’s Sahtu region and involving the Delta variant, would evolve.
“Based on the NJ Macpherson School outbreak, the case count continues to go up for seven to 10 days. We’re about halfway to 10 days,” Green said on Thursday morning.
“I would imagine the case counts will continue to grow in a way that’s very alarming.”
On Wednesday, the NWT government announced more than 50 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the territory’s active case count to 129 and representing its largest one-day jump in numbers since the pandemic began.
The NJ Macpherson School outbreak involved a total of 71 cases.
Green said she envisaged “a lot of spread” in the present outbreak and suggested the reopening of schools could be affected.
“It’s going to depend on who is infected, what age they are, and what community they’re in,” she said.
Preparation involves ‘a fine line’
Health officials have for a year warned that no matter what the NWT does to defend itself, Covid-19 will find ways into the territory and outbreaks of some sort will occur.
As the territory appealed for federal and Red Cross help, the health minister said the current outbreak had overwhelmed the NWT’s resources – despite long knowing such an event was possible – because it was happening in multiple communities at once.
“If we could have one testing team in one community, that would be a lot easier than having testing teams in every community that has substantial numbers of cases,” she said.
“That’s why it has outpaced our resources this time around.”
The minister described a “fine line” between retaining too many outbreak-focused staff when no outbreak is occurring and having enough resources when one does take place.
“We’re doing our best to meet the immediate need and then to plan for relief for our staff,” she said.
The territory’s health authority is now trying to reassign staff to front-line positions due to a shortage of nursing staff and laboratory technicians.
“Those are two key areas, but there are others as well that are part of the team that is taking this on, where we either are short-staffed going in or we don’t have enough staff anyway for the numbers of people involved with cases,” the minister said.
The NWT government’s appeal to the federal government is understood to include a request for the transfer of federal healthcare staff, though Green said she could not confirm details of those conversations.
The minister said she hopes the outbreak will “start tapering off” if people isolate and self-monitor properly.
“That way we can bring the pandemic numbers under control,” she said.
Below, read a full transcript of the interview.
This interview was conducted on August 19, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
McKenna Hadley-Burke:Just how serious is this outbreak?
Julie Green: It’s a very serious outbreak, the likes of which we have never seen in the NWT during the course of this pandemic. So what I’ve seen is that cases are doubling every day. And we’re now up to 129. And we have some of the most vulnerable people impacted by the pandemic: people who weren’t vaccinated, Elders, children. We’re at a time where the risk is high and there are lots of reasons to be concerned about that.
What are you being told about what to expect over the next week or so?
I haven’t had that conversation about what to expect. But based on the NJ Macpherson School outbreak, the case count continues to go up for seven to 10 days. We’re about halfway to 10 days. I would imagine the case counts will continue to grow in a way that’s very alarming. And then they should start tapering off as people are following the self-isolation and self-monitoring advice. So that’s my hope, is that that’s what people are doing and that way we can bring the pandemic numbers under control.
Where is help most urgently needed and what does that help look like?
We are short of nurses anyway. Going into the summer, a number of nurses have decided to move on or they are on holiday. In order to provide rapid testing and vaccinations to all of the affected communities, we need to send in rapid response teams. We are short of nursing staff, we’re generating a lot of test results that need to be confirmed in a laboratory. So we are also short of laboratory technicians. Those are two key areas, but there are others as well, that are part of the team that is taking this on, where we either are short-staffed going in or we don’t have enough staff anyway for the numbers of people involved with cases.
Where’s that help going to come from at this point? What resources are you seeking?
At this point, the [NWT Health and Social Services Authority] has put a call out to all of its staff, that if anyone has the skills to assist, they would appreciate them coming forward so they could be reassigned from the job they’re in now to a front-line job.
We’ve also approached the federal government and the Canadian Red Cross to ask them if they have resources that they can access for us. We haven’t heard back from them yet but there have been meetings so that the scope of the need is understood. And we expect to have a response from them, I hope, as early as tomorrow, but I don’t know for sure it will be tomorrow.
In terms of approaching the military, is that a possibility?
I haven’t heard any discussion about approaching the military. I think that we’re going to try these other avenues first and see what we can obtain that way. And if we need to call on the military then we will. I mean, the goal here is to meet people’s needs, to keep them safe, to keep the people who are sick on the right track to recovery. So we’ll do whatever it takes, but we’re trying to be methodical so we’ve got a couple of asks out now and we’re going to follow those through before we start opening up more avenues.
Without intruding on privacy, can you give us an update on how many people are in hospital and how they’re doing?
My information is that there are four or five people in hospital. I’m going to say they’re seriously ill if they need to be in hospital, but I don’t have any particular information about how they’re doing or where they’re from or what age they are.
This morning, Dr Kandola told the CBC about delays in possibly vaccinating children under 12. Are we potentially going to see an impact on the NWT’s back-to-school plan?
My understanding is that the back-to-school plan is in place now and it requires masking in common areas like hallways, buses, and so on. I haven’t heard of any changes to that. But this is a very rapidly evolving situation and school isn’t going to start for another week to 10 days in Yellowknife. It has started in other locations. And so it is possible that there will need to be a change. It’s going to depend on who is infected, what age they are, and what community they’re in. So, you know, is this a situation where there’s going to be a lot of spread.
The biggest concern is that we have 7,000 children under 12 years old. That’s a big unvaccinated group. And we saw during the NJ Macpherson outbreak how vulnerable they are. Eighty-five percent of the 71 cases in the NJ outbreak were children, with an average age of eight and a half years old. So we understand that children are very vulnerable.
At the same time, we can’t start vaccinating them until we have Health Canada approval for vaccinating children. In the past, when we’ve had those approvals, we’ve acted on them immediately. And that will be the case this time as well. But the approval is the starting point.
For a year now, Dr. Kandola has been clear that the virus will get into the NWT and this kind of thing will happen, no matter the defences in place. Why is this outbreak outpacing our resources when we’ve known to expect something like this for quite a long time?
Most of our cases have been travel cases where an individual returns to the NWT, feels unwell, gets tested, and isolates with the household. And so it’s one at a time. The exception to that was the NJ outbreak, where there were 71 cases.
The thing that makes this different is the number of cases and that it is in so many different communities. The NJ outbreak was a Yellowknife outbreak, but this current outbreak is a multi-community outbreak. So if we could have one testing team in one community, that would be a lot easier than having testing teams in every community that has substantial numbers of cases. So that’s why it has outpaced our resources this time around.
Will we be better prepared for the next outbreak? Or is the reality that any outbreak of this nature is going to exceed the NWT’s ability to respond?
I find it’s a fine line. We don’t want to hire a bunch of people to wait for an outbreak. But at the same time, we do need resources that we can rapidly bring in and redeploy. So it’s a tricky situation, to make sure that we have everybody on standby who needs to be there.
Having said that, I think that we’re good with our pandemic plan that was released last August. And we are following along with that. And I think that we do have enough short-term resources. What happens though is in a longer period of outbreaks – such as the one we’re going to be in now, where the outbreak is going to continue for a while – we need to give relief to those people on the front lines so that they can have some time off and refresh. So I think that we’re doing our best to meet the immediate need and then to plan for relief for our staff.
The other thing I want to say is that we’re going to keep having outbreaks. That seems to be the nature of this illness. And people need to get vaccinated. That really is their best defence. So there are people who are vaccinated who have become sick anyway, but the science shows they’re less sick if they have been vaccinated. If the vaccination rate had been higher in the Sahtu, I feel pretty confident that we wouldn’t have had the superspreader event that we now have on our hands.
So I’m really encouraging people to get vaccinated. Every health centre has vaccine. You just need to call, they’ll give you a vaccination. I’m encouraging people to do that for their own well-being so that they don’t get sick, but also for the well-being of their families and communities.