The NWT government will close its Covid-19 Secretariat at the end of March but some services, like the 8-1-1 helpline, will be preserved.
Around 130 people were still working for the secretariat – a temporary division of the NWT government designed to coordinate the territory’s pandemic response – at the start of March.
Three-quarters of those employees are on contracts that end on March 31, Russell Neudorf, the associate deputy minister in charge of the secretariat, told MLAs on Wednesday.
About a dozen staff have already left as they were tasked with running the NWT’s isolation centres, Neudorf said. Demand for isolation space dropped steeply when the territory ended the requirement to isolate following travel at the start of March.
According to Neudorf, the remaining quarter of the secretariat’s staff were on transfer assignments from other departments and will soon return to those departments.
“We are working this month on an orderly transition,” he said. “Some of those activities will occur early into the month of April, just so that we can properly wrap things up.”
Camps at borders along highways where officers checked documents will be closed down, and there will be costs associated with ensuring the surrounding land is appropriately cleaned up.
The Covid-19 Secretariat was given $35 million in the 2021-22 budget. Officials initially expected the secretariat to be wound up before all of that money was spent.
Instead, the fall Delta-variant outbreak in the NWT and subsequent Omicron wave kept the secretariat in operation until the end of the financial year.
Some of the secretariat’s functions will outlive it.
“It’s our intention to bring over some of the staff to the Department of Health and Social Services to continue dealing with Covid as an endemic disease,” said health minister Julie Green, who added the territory’s Covid-19 requirements would be reassessed after four months.
In April, a total of 16.5 jobs that were introduced through the secretariat’s creation will be retained and transferred to different departments.
As an example, Green said compliance and enforcement will still be required to a limited extent in case containment orders are issued in communities facing outbreaks, while wastewater testing will continue.
The 8-1-1 phone number established for queries about the NWT’s pandemic-era rules and restrictions will also be maintained, the minister said.
“We understand that 8-1-1 has generally been a useful service for the public to report the results of their tests and to get information about Covid,” said Green.
“The hours and the staffing complement will be reduced. We anticipate a lower volume of calls to that number, but we do plan to continue offering that service and we’re looking at the information that might be provided through that service.”
In time, the helpline’s role could be expanded, deputy health minister Bruce Cooper said.
“There’s work happening with the health authority to strengthen the connection between nursing and the operators on that line, and we’re certainly aware of the way 8-1-1 gets used in other jurisdictions as a valuable service that helps sometimes keep people away from primary care or emergency rooms,” Cooper told MLAs.
“We are looking to see whether there might be a business case for that.”