Cancelled and Postponed: Nunavut braces for COVID-19 to hit

Nunavut hasn’t had a single person test positive for the COVID-19 virus, but what happens in the south almost always comes north.

In preparation, two high profile Nunavut events have either cancelled or postponed.

The Nunavut Mining Symposium announced it will not be going forward with its annual Iqaluit conference, scheduled for the end of March and early April.

The event contributes between $750,000 and $1 million to the Iqaluit economy yearly, and hosts around 400 people who work in resource extraction.

Many of the potential symposium attendees also attended last week’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto, where the 25,000 delegates were potentially exposed to COVID-19.

Some of those were from Nunavut, including seven employees from Department of Economic Development and Transportation in Nunavut.

Those seven are now under self-monitoring protocols, a step below self-isolation.

“People who attended the PDAC conference and are feeling well are being advised to self-monitor for two weeks after the conference,” explained Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson. “In self-monitoring, you can still work, but you should be careful at work to avoid physical contact. Maintain some separation between yourself and your nearest co-worker.

“Or consider working behind a closed door or even working from home if that’s an option. And avoid a lot of gatherings, like parties, weddings, events like that.”

With mining being a major sector of Nunavut’s economy, it wasn’t just economic development and transportation employees in Toronto for PDAC.

(Nunavut Chief Oublic Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson talks to media as Nunavut Mining Symposium Vice-President Bernie MacIsaac looks on. Photo: Kent Driscoll/APTN)

The private sector was well represented, and face a chance of developing COVID-19.

“I honestly don’t know the full number,” explained Patterson. “Because many of the people who went to PDAC were there outside of the Government of Nunavut. We don’t have that full data.”

The Terence Tootoo Memorial Hockey Tournament – scheduled for the end of March in Rankin Inlet – has decided to delay the annual event until November.

The Senior Men’s Tournament started as the Avataq Cup in 2001, and was renamed in 2017 to honour the memory of Terence Tootoo.

Terence was the brother of the only Inuk to play in the NHL, Jordin Tootoo.

Terence died by suicide in 2002 after being charged with impaired driving. He was 22 years-old.

It was to be the first Tootoo Memorial held in Rankin Inlet’s brand new hockey arena, and last year Jordin Tootoo got his first chance to play in the tournement himself.

“In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus, and after consulting with Jordin Tootoo and meeting with our committee, the TTM committee is announcing it will postpone our tournament to November 2020,” said the statement.

The organizers added, “It was a very hard decision but it had to be made. Safety first. Hopefully see you all in November.”

Groups with upcoming travel or events have been contacting the health department for advice.

That advice differs depending on circumstance – an event in a small community for Nunavut residents isn’t as risky right now as events that draw from beyond Nunavut.

“I’ve had a number of organizations over the last couple of weeks contact me,” said Patterson. “We’ve been using a risk based risk assessment tool, that is designed to look at a lot of these circumstances, and decide if a mass gathering should be modified, postponed or outright cancelled.”

For now, events are being decided on a case by case basis.

“It’s not appropriate right now to issue a blanket statement that all events should be cancelled or all events should go ahead,” he said. “At the same time, we also have to be ready to change that decision as needed. That may happen on a very short notice.”

Last week, health department officials said “fewer than five” people had been tested in Nunavut for COVID-19.

The number is larger now, due in part to different testing protocols.

“One of our lab partners in the south has started doing COVID-19 testing in their own lab,” said Patterson. “As a part of their validation process, as a part of what we call sentinel surveillance, they’ve gone back and tested other swabs that we had sent them for influenza and RSV.

“They’ve since sent us at least 10 results that are all negative.”

With testing taking place in the south, Nunavut faces wait times to receive results.

“[Turnaround time] varies by community,” said Patterson. “The biggest delay right now is the time to fly it to the labs that are doing this. Depending on the community and the weather, that can take two or three days.

“For Iqaluit, when the weather is good, we’re looking at a three to four day turnaround. For some of our other communities, its more like six to seven days.”

COVID-19

(Overcrowding is a major issue in Nunavut’s 51 communities. APTN)

Some treatment for COVID-19 will take place in facilities outside of Nunavut, as Nunavut lacks intensive care beds. Those who can be kept in territory will be, but a percentage of cases will need full medivac to a province.

“It depends how sick they are. It depends on other circumstances. Worldwide, at least 80 per cent of people with Covid-19 do not need admission to hospital,” said Patterson.

“Under most circumstances, we could keep those people in territory. About 15 per cent need to be admitted to hospital, but the just need a regular bed. About 4 per cent need an intensive care unit. We do not have intensive care units in Nunavut, they would have to go South.”

Many Nunavut patients travel south for conditions that would be treated locally in other parts of the country.

One example, while Iqaluit has a CT scanner, it doesn’t have an MRI machine.

For now, medical travel will continue, both from smaller centres to regional hubs and to Southern locations.

“At the moment, there’s no evidence of community transmission,” said Patterson. “Having one case in a community is not the same as saying that there’s transmission occurring and a likelihood of exposure. If we start to see that likelihood of exposure rising, we will reassess at that time.”

When the virulent virus finally gets a foothold in Nunavut, the conditions are there for it to thrive, like most infectious diseases do in Nunavut.

Nunavut’s tuberculosis rate is 62 times the national average.

Fifty-six per cent of Nunavummiut live in  overcrowded housing, so APTN News asked Patterson how can someone self-isolate when they live in overcrowded housing.

“You do the best you can,” said Patterson. “An option under those circumstances is to admit somebody for isolation, for a brief period of time.”

As for advice, Patterson said, “number one, wash your hands. The more people wash their hands, the less sick they’re going to be. Number two, if you are sick, stay home. When we go to work sick, we think we’re toughing it out, we think we’re contributing to the team, we think we’re not letting our co-workers down.

“The reality is, if you go to work with flu, even if its regular influenze, you’re not going to be as productive as normal, and you’re going to make your co-workers sick, and spread the infection. If you’re sick, stay home until you’re well.”

The chief public health officer also confirmed that residents will be informed which of Nunavut’s 22 communities have confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In contrast, the Yukon government cited privacy as the reason they will not be telling residents which Yukon communities have positive results.

“We will be as forthcoming and transparent as we can. We will not name names,” explained Patterson. “We will not give identifying data, but we will discuss where they are, how we believe they were exposed, and what Nunavummiut can do to protect themselves.”

One of Nunavut’s statistical oddities is working in the territory’s favour, the young population.

Nunavut has Canada’s youngest and fastest growing population, and youth are beating Covid-19 much better than their elders.

“Like some other viral infections, this seems to have the greatest complications for the elderly, for people who have compromised immune systems, and people who have underlying medical problems,” said Patterson.

“Those are the people who are at the highest risk of severe complications from the disease.”

Video Journalist / Iqaluit

Kent has been APTN’s Nunavut correspondent since 2007. In that time he has closely covered Inuit issues, including devolution and the controversial Nutrition North food subsidy. He has also worked for CKIQ-FM in Iqaluit and as a reporter for Nunavut News North.