NWT, Nunavut Close Borders as Vulnerable North Tries to Keep out Pandemic

March 25, 2020 Updated: March 27, 2020
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With relatively small populations dispersed in tiny communities spread across three million square kilometres of hinterland, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have closed their borders to all non-residents in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from proliferating.

Because of limited health care access, the North is considered to be one of Canada’s most at-risk regions for an outbreak of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

“We don’t have the health infrastructure to handle something like this—already it’s so easy to overload,” said Merven Gruben, former mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a small N.W.T. hamlet of about 600 people on the shores of the Beaufort Sea.

“At the small nursing station here you don’t, and even at Inuvik’s hospital (138 km south) there isn’t that much capacity, so if we can keep everybody out and keep everyone here clean, it’s worth it.”

On March 21, N.W.T. confirmed its first case of COVID-19, imported by a resident who returned to the territorial capital of Yellowknife—population 20,000—from travel in Alberta and British Columbia.

N.W.T., Nunavut, and Yukon have all declared a state of emergency and are largely following the restrictions put in place in the provinces.

The same weekend N.W.T. announced its first and so far only case of coronavirus, officials set up checkpoints at highways entering the territory from Alberta and British Columbia.

Two days later, acting on the advice of health officials, Nunavut shut its territory to inbound travel by non-residents. The largest of Canada’s three northern territories, Nunavut has an advantage because it’s accessible only by air or sea.

Gruben said he was unaware whether checkpoints had been established at the head of the Dempster Highway, which begins in Yukon and is the only road access to the Western Actic N.W.T. communities of Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, Fort McPherson, and Tsiighetchic.

“Blizzards have closed that highway several times over the past month,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about locals ignoring social-distancing in Inuvik—the regional hub which features southern-style mod cons like a hospital, grocery stores, bars, and restaurants.

“When somebody is in trouble, we help them. The north has always been like that, but I don’t want to be quarantined and I hope we don’t have to go that far,” he said.

Few outsiders make the 800 km journey by road from the Yukon/N.W.T. border up the Dempster Highway, especially during the winter, and Gruben said the harsh seasonal weather over the past two months has closed the Dempster several times already.

The Yukon/NWT border is in a virtual no-man’s land some 150 km north of the Arctic Circle.

For N.W.T. resident Michele Taylor, currently in self-quarantine in Yellowknife after the pandemic truncated her contract work in Thunder Bay, Ont., her trip home was the sort of journey through multiple airports and time zones that could transmit the virus to otherwise uninfected regions.

“I was routed from Thunder Bay, through Pearson [International] in Toronto, and up through Calgary to Yellowknife, and not once on any of those flights was I checked or asked if I had any symptoms,” said Taylor. “There wasn’t a word said to me about it.”

Vancouver-based Dr. Janet Ip, who completed her residency in Inuvik, said concerns in the Far North are warranted.

“All it takes is one person in a small community like Tuktoyaktuk to be infected before it can become widespread, and I would be concerned with people living in close quarters there, and the elderly,” Ip said.

“It’s a highly infectious disease so social distancing would be especially important since health care there is so limited that it would be a devastating effect in their community.”

In Vancouver, where COVID-19 is believed to have entered Canada from China and is now wracked by the pandemic, Ip said there’s a shortage of supplies—a challenge facing physicians and nurses across the country.

“Like many places, there’s a shortage of viral swabs so we donated ours to urgent care and the hospitals,” said Ip, a dermatologist and family physician at a clinic in the city.

“Due to the shortage, we’ve been instructed to only recommend swabs for symptomatic health care workers, or those with severe symptoms …so  we’re doing virtual and phone consults with patients to help determine if they even need to go get tested. For patients with mild symptoms we instruct them to self-isolate at home.”

She noted that hospitals and urgent care facilities are asking that all potential cases be referred to them for analysis.

“We have done some [coronavirus testing] but are now sending suspect cases to urgent care centres that have proper isolation procedures, which are challenging in small outpatient clinics like ours.”

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.