More than a third of Colville Lake has Covid-19. In Fort Good Hope, it’s 78 people in a community of 600. As those numbers grow, residents of these hardest-hit communities are pulling together.
In interviews on Friday, residents described the adjustments they are making to life in containment, the limitations of the healthcare and services available, and a feeling of isolation not helped by the spectre of internet overages.
Isabel Orlias, a resident of Colville Lake in isolation with her three children, told Cabin Radio the impact of the outbreak – 55 of her community’s 151 residents are infected – “was scary, and it was kind of a shock.”
“I don’t think anyone thought Covid would be among us – especially in a small community – and then how quickly it has spread,” Orlias said.
“In such a small community, everybody’s always interacting with each other on a daily basis at the store or the band office. And now everybody has to stay home. So I think it’s probably harder for those that are by themselves and don’t have families.”
Carla Tutcho, another resident, described nervousness and fear as the outbreak set in, “especially for my kids and thinking about the Elders, too.”
As of Thursday evening, the Sahtu as a whole had 150 cases of Covid-19.
The containment order affecting Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake has closed businesses and banned gatherings. Travel to and from those communities is all but shut off, with the exception of incoming supplies and support or outgoing medical travel.
Tommy Kakfwi, the Chief of Fort Good Hope, on Tuesday said his community was “in dire need” of more help from the territorial government and beyond.
On Friday afternoon, Kakfwi said a territorial rapid response team was expected to leave Fort Good Hope the following day. He said that would leave the community health centre understaffed.
“As far as healthcare workers go, it’s not sufficient,” said Kakfwi.
Colville Lake has one nurse who could leave by Monday, said David Codzi, president of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation and assistant band manager of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation.
“Hopefully, we could get somebody else that’s going to be here longer in case we have severe cases and somebody wants to see them,” he said.
Codzi said he only realized there were no rapid tests in the community just before the outbreak hit.
“In the future, they should have rapid tests in every community,” he said, “and then train the people in the community to do them when somebody gets sick, and they could go to the health centre and test themselves.
“That way, the resources that were needed would have been less than they are now.”
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya on Thursday similarly called for more rapid testing in affected communities.
While rapid testing has been available across the territory since December 2020, supplies have been dwindling in some communities. On the same day that Yakeleya spoke, health minister Julie Green told Cabin Radio a shortage of nursing staff and laboratory technicians was hindering the NWT’s response in the Sahtu.
‘We bought time and that time is up’
Councillor Arthur Tobac, in Fort Good Hope, said it was difficult adjusting to containment.
“Right now, with everything shut down, it’s getting really difficult to get used to the fact that we’re isolated, totally, without airlines – without anything coming in,” he said. Local airline North-Wright Airways has suspended flights to and from Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake.
Lack of cleaning products is another problem in Colville Lake, said Codzi and senior administrative officer Joseph Kochon.
The local co-op ran out of cleaning supplies right away, they said, and shipments from Yellowknife only arrive once a week. A new shipment was expected to arrive some time on Friday.
Despite the circumstances, Codzi described “a real calm” in Colville Lake.
“We kind-of realized where we are and what we need to do,” he said.
Codzi said before this outbreak, watching Covid-19 impact other provinces felt like “just-about another world away.”
“Now that it’s here,” he said, “we can’t just be afraid that it’s going to be here, or it’s coming here, or it’s somewhere else – it’s right at the next door.
“We bought time and that time is up.”
Codzi, whose own family is sick with the virus, said people in the community have “been pretty good” about staying home, supporting others, and volunteering where they can.
“All our service people got sick: water truck drivers, sewer, garbage, those sorts of people. So we put other people in,” said Codzi.
Orlias and Tutcho said community members who tested negative for the virus have been hired to deliver groceries to those in isolation.
“I think it’s really important that everyone follow those protocols – wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, and just stay home and only go out if you absolutely have to,” Tutcho said.
In Fort Good Hope, Tobac had heard there were more community members getting vaccinated because of the outbreak.
Tutcho in Colville Lake was even able to get her second vaccine dose this week.
Wary of leaving isolation without her children, a nurse came to her instead. Tutcho received her shot on her front porch.
“I feel better,” she said. “I feel safer.”
Another fear? The internet bill
One concern felt by many Sahtu residents this week is familiar to all northerners: internet overages.
Kochon described Facebook posts in which residents worried about running out of data with whole families at home all day.
“I guess those are things that are out of our control,” said Kochon.
Codzi and Orlias said in Colville Lake, 45 gigabytes is the largest data package offered by Northwestel – the North’s dominant (and sometimes only) internet provider.
According to a territorial government webpage, Colville Lake residents can get up to 60 gigabytes while Fort Good Hope residents can get up to 300.
“Most people go over that right away,” said Codzi.
“A lot of kids are home on their devices and isolating that way, which is good for us; it keeps people off the road or keeps kids inside.
“I’ve been trying to get Northwestel to at least let the overages go. Some families are going to have huge, huge bills.”
Orlias said the cost of going over the set gigabyte allowance is “very expensive.”
“Sometimes it could go up to $1,500 in overage charges,” she explained.
“Some families probably don’t even have income coming in … so how would they be able to pay for a big internet bill if they have no income while in isolation?”
In an email to Cabin Radio on Friday afternoon, a Northwestel spokesperson said the company “continues to respond to the Covid-19 situation with a focus on keeping our customers and employees safe and maintaining a strong network for emergency responders and impacted communities.”
The spokesperson continued: “As part of our ongoing Covid-19 response in July 2020 we also introduced permanent increases to monthly data limits in every northern community.
“In Colville Lake, for example, we increased available monthly data by 33 percent as part of our Covid-19 response, which is what the existing satellite technology allows us to do.”
Northwestel did not say whether it planned to waive overage fees in communities like Colville Lake while the outbreak lasts.