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Coronavirus
Yellowknife

Struggling to keep some people isolated, NWT seeks extra security

Last modified: September 11, 2021 at 9:36pm


The Northwest Territories government plans to hire additional security as it faces challenges keeping some people in isolation during Yellowknife’s growing Covid-19 outbreak.

After Covid-19 exposure at the Salvation Army men’s shelter in mid-August, the territory quickly began using rooms at the downtown Quality Inn to allow shelter users and their contacts to isolate. But that’s not always working. 

“There are a small number staying there that are repeatedly non-compliant with isolation rules,” stated a Friday night update from the territorial government. “There is a belief that the behaviour of these individuals may represent asymmetrical risk for the spread of Covid-19 in [the] homeless population.” 

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A security guard in downtown Yellowknife, who asked that they not be named, described interactions with a number of people who admit they are breaking isolation. The security guard said they worry those individuals could have Covid-19 and put others at risk.

“Everybody is just creating a massive mess in the downtown core,” they said. 

“I’ve called RCMP probably three to five times a day to deal with people. They don’t come for 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes, they don’t come at all.” 

Previously, a resident contacted Cabin Radio to express concern after a large group of people meant to be isolating gathered outside the Quality Inn while sharing cigarettes, food, and drinks. 

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Meanwhile, a former shelter worker said because the isolation centre was put together so quickly, staff inexperienced at working with vulnerable people were thrust into new roles in a new facility. They said the lack of organization placed people at risk, while ongoing gaps in services exacerbated the issue.

Covid-19 has spread quickly among Yellowknife residents without homes and support workers at shelters. Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer, said on Wednesday there had been a “rapid increase” over the Labour Day weekend, leading to the declaration of an outbreak.

Since mid-August, at least 19 people who use shelters and 10 healthcare and support workers have tested positive for Covid-19. On Thursday night, the city’s downtown day shelter – operated by the NWT Disabilities Council – closed indefinitely as so many staff had been exposed to Covid-19 that there were no longer enough workers to keep it open. 

In a Twitter exchange, health minister Julie Green said other NWT government staff had been asked to volunteer for redeployment at the day shelter.

“We have moved some people who need isolation because they are positive or are contacts to another isolation centre, so that the whole homeless population isn’t in one location,” Green wrote.

“Our challenge remains staffing. Many regular staff are sick who work at the NWT Disabilities Council shelter so we appealed yesterday to GNWT workforce to volunteer for redeployment. Hope to hear results today.”

Isolation approach ‘must be trauma-informed’

In a Friday update, with active cases in Yellowknife nearing 100, the territorial government said several departments and agencies had discussed “potential options to support persons experiencing homelessness with challenging behaviour.”  

Green said on Saturday her government is “working on contracting additional security to keep people in place” as they isolate.

In an email to Cabin Radio, territorial government spokesperson Ali Kincaid said the GNWT has no legal authority to force anyone to stay at an isolation centre. (After this article was first published, Kincaid wrote to Cabin Radio asking to amend that statement. In her second statement, Kincaid said isolation was, in fact, enforceable in some circumstances, but as a last resort.)

When those isolating are vulnerable people, the situation is more complex, Kincaid said.

“Spending a significant period of time in isolation can be challenging. This is especially true for our vulnerable population, many of whom struggle with issues like mental health and addictions that likely stem from the impacts of colonialism and the residential school system,” Kincaid wrote. 

“We need to take a trauma-informed and compassionate approach to build the trust needed to ensure the vulnerable population feels safe enough to stay.”

Kincaid said when anyone checks in to an isolation centre in the NWT, they are informed of the rules and asked to sign a code of conduct to “encourage appropriate behaviour.” There is also round-the-clock security at those centres, she said.

People in isolation are allowed to go outside on walks or “health breaks” to address the mental health challenges of isolating, Kincaid said.

At the Quality Inn, supports in place including on-site addictions management, wellness kits, books, craft supplies, and calling cards. Staff try to meet individual requests for personal items. 

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

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