A public health nurse says a contact-tracing investigation related to Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn in April was “complicated” because he kept changing his story.
Stephanie Gilbert, Covid outbreak clinical coordinator for the NWT Health and Social Services Authority, testified on Wednesday during the third day of a public inquiry into whether Norn breached the MLAs’ code of conduct by allegedly breaking mandatory self-isolation and “misleading the public” about his actions.
Gilbert said she had been involved in around 600 Covid-19 contact-tracing investigations but Norn’s “stands out” as it was “much longer, more complicated, and certainly at times stressful and difficult.” While most cases usually conclude within an hour, Gilbert said public health officials had to interview Norn multiple times over several days to get an accurate timeline of where he had been since returning to the NWT on April 4, following travel to Alberta.
According to Norn’s case file, when he tested positive for Covid-19 on April 21, Norn initially told public health he hadn’t been in contact with anyone outside his household during his isolation period between April 4 and 18.
Gilbert said public health then began getting “numerous phone calls” from members of the public who self-identified as potential contacts, saying Norn had either phoned or texted them or they read news reports indicating Norn was Covid-19 positive. At that point an epidemiologist became involved in the investigation, which Gilbert said only happens in more difficult cases.
“We have a duty to investigate those things for public safety,” Gilbert explained.
“We weren’t getting a true sense of the risk involved and then we therefore could not make good decisions to the public about who was exposed or not.”
Among those who contacted public health was SuEllen Dillabough, a child protection worker and longtime friend of Norn who testified she had seen him briefly on the afternoon of April 18, when he dropped off a package for her daughter. She said she was tested for Covid-19 four times, each of which came back negative.
In subsequent interviews with public health, Norn said he had seen his daughter – who was separately isolating – briefly on April 8 and 17. He also said he went to the Legislative Assembly on April 18 and the Yellowknife Racquet Club on April 19.
Legislature deputy clerk Glen Rutland, however, contacted public health to advise that Norn had actually been at the assembly building on April 17. On Tuesday, security guard Robert Braine had testified he let Norn into the building that day, supported by the assembly’s sign-in sheet and video footage said to show Norn’s arrival.
Gilbert said the office of the chief public health officer also contacted public health to indicate video footage showed Norn was at the Yellowknife Racquet Club on April 18, not April 19.
In response to questioning from Norn’s lawyer – Steven Cooper – Gilbert said a one-day difference may not seem a big gap in most instances but when it comes to risk of exposure to a “deadly disease,” it matters.
“When we’re talking about Covid and the incubation period and communicable period of that disease, a couple of days makes a difference. It means that we are losing time in terms of notifying contacts and every contact that is out there that doesn’t know they were exposed has the potential to then expose others,” she said.
“If somebody isn’t able to give us an accurate story and an accurate account of their activities, it puts others at risk.”
Gilbert added that members of the public who were later notified they may have been exposed to Covid-19 were upset they hadn’t been told sooner and there was a “significant list of contacts” at the Racquet Club.
Clarity on Covid rules questioned
Several witnesses who testified at the public hearing on Wednesday indicated confusion about self-isolation rules in the NWT.
Trisha Smith, who travelled to Alberta with Norn in April and was living with him at the time, said she believed their self-isolation period ended on April 18, after they received a symptom check phone call from Statistics Canada. She said she wasn’t concerned when Norn left their home for the Racquet Club that afternoon as they had received that call and weren’t symptomatic.
The inquiry heard that a letter notifying Smith and Norn of their isolation period, however, stated they were required to isolate from April 4 up to and including April 18.
On Tuesday, Dennis Marchiori, director of compliance and enforcement operations for the Covid-19 Secretariat, testified about calculation of the 14-day isolation period. He said day one doesn’t begin until the day after travellers return to the territory.
Despite clarifying questions from sole adjudicator Justice Ronald Barclay and confusion on the part of Norn’s counsel, Ronald Halabi, Marchiori insisted the rules are “fairly clear” in letters sent to those self-isolating.
Natasha Schwindt, Norn’s former partner, who was self-isolating in April after their daughter returned from a trip to BC to visit family, also testified on Wednesday. She expressed frustration with communication from public health and said after she tested positive for Covid-19, she wasn’t asked contact-tracing questions while her partner at the time, Norn, and Smith were.
“It’s a very frustrating system. There’s a lot of misinformation or miscommunication in each public health nurse that calls you. You get a different one every day and they give you different information,” she said.
Norn is facing a conduct complaint from his fellow MLAs. Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson filed the complaint on behalf of caucus to the NWT legislature’s integrity commissioner in May, after allegations that Norn broke self-isolation were made public.
In June, Commissioner David Phillip Jones recommended that the complaint be heard by way of a public inquiry before a sole adjudicator.
The hearing is set to resume at 9:30am on Thursday, at which time Norn is scheduled to testify.