So far, only a single case has been announced across all three northern territories — and experts are hoping the situation stays that way.
Saturday saw the first reported case of COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories, believed to be the first in Canada’s North. The individual, who travelled to British Columbia and Alberta, is now isolated at home.
The Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon all declared public health emergencies this week and have instituted the same measures as the provinces, including closing schools, limiting travel and promoting social distancing.
Arctic governments said they were making the declarations in order to proactively mobilize resources and prepare for the possibility of cases.
“The challenges the territories have ahead of us in dealing with COVID-19 are very real,” N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane told reporters Friday.
“Taking these steps now, before COVID-19 shows up in our territory, is the best thing we can do to lessen the impact it will have when it comes.”
The following day, the territory announced a ban on all non-essential travel — just hours before announcing its first case.
Health officials have been open about the challenges facing their territories, which are made up of several remote communities with no local health infrastructure on par with municipalities closer to the Canada-U.S. border.
Homes are also often overcrowded in the remote regions, increasing the chance for community spread. Officials have said they could remove people from homes if a risk of infection is identified and isolate them in a clinical environment.
Tom Koch, an adjunct professor of medical geography at the University of British Columbia, says the isolation of northern communities has worked to their advantage so far, with few opportunities for travellers to spread COVID-19 there the way residents elsewhere, including British Columbia and Ontario, have brought the disease to Canada from abroad.
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“Viruses are hitchhikers: they’ll only go where we take them,” he said Friday. “But there are far fewer flights going up to the Yukon than to Vancouver or Toronto. Even from Vancouver to 100 Mile House, more people are taking that trip than up to Nunavut.”
Hundreds of people have been tested for the virus in the territories, but nearly all have been cleared so far. Nunavut said Friday that 79 people remain under investigation.
Koch says once a case is confirmed in the community, it will be hard to stop it from spreading.
“The density of the housing and the problems there means it could spread really quickly,” he said. “It will depend on if someone from the homeless population or Indigenous communities in the cities get infected and then comes up north. But so far, it doesn’t look like that’s happened yet.
“Could it happen? Right now, the answer is ‘maybe.'”
The territories also rely heavily on southern communities for health services, including laboratory testing for suspected COVID-19 cases. The Yukon, for example, sends all its tests to British Columbia’s labs, and said Friday it had started getting results back more quickly.
On average, though, territories are waiting nearly a week to learn if cases have been deemed positive or negative for the disease.
With only four beds in the intensive care unit at Whitehorse General Hospital and six at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife — none are in Nunavut — the territories must rely on larger facilities in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba if cases need that kind of care. The limited staff at territorial hospitals and smaller clinics means it’s harder for local health care staff to mobilize and address an outbreak.
Those northern provincial hospitals have not yet said how they are preparing for a possible influx of cases from Arctic communities. Global News has reached out to ministries and health authorities for comment.
The territories say their public health emergencies do not prevent health care workers, RCMP, and other essential personnel from crossing their borders.
Ottawa has asked all provinces and territories to provide detailed requests for medical supplies and other resources needed to address the pandemic.
All three territories are advising elderly residents and those with weakened immune systems to stay home and avoid contact with anyone who has even been suspected of exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
They’re also telling everyone to avoid public gatherings and to exercise caution when travelling within communities.
“We know we need to take big steps to avoid the level of spread we’ve seen in southern Canada and across the globe,” N.W.T. Health Minister Diane Thom said Friday. “And we know taking action right away is the best way to do this.”
—With files from the Canadian Press