Officials warn of community spread as Nunavut enters lockdown

A remote hamlet in Nunavut with limited health care resources had its COVID-19 cases more than double overnight as the territory prepared to enter a two-week lockdown on Wednesday.

Government officials believe there is community spread in the hamlet of Arviat, where 26 new cases were declared on Tuesday, bringing the total to 46. Eight cases were announced in the hamlet of Whale Cove, all linked to the Arviat outbreak. Of the 38,780 people in Nunavut, 2,675 live in Arviat, and 435 live in Whale Cove. The territory had 60 cases as of Tuesday.

All the infected individuals are in isolation and doing well, according to a Tuesday news release from the territorial government.

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“The last week has shown us just how quickly COVID-19 spreads,” Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer, said in the news release. “This rate and reach of transmission will continue to grow if we don’t each do our part.”

During the lockdown, all non-essential businesses will close, and schools will move to remote learning. Indoor gatherings will be restricted to five people in addition to household members.

In an interview, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq likened the territory-wide lockdown to a circuit breaker, adding it will allow a chance for a reset.

“We don’t know if the virus is in other communities,” he said. “We know that it is in four communities right now.”

Residents are being encouraged to strictly follow public health guidelines: hand washing, mask wearing and not visiting with others.

“With this virus … some people have it and they don’t know it,” Mr. Savikataaq said. “That’s why we are asking people not to visit, not to have any social gatherings, because we don’t know when someone has the virus.”

One of the greatest concerns for the territory in the face of COVID-19 is its crisis of overcrowded homes, the Premier said.

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“If you’re in an overcrowded house, it is very hard to social distance, if you have, let’s say, 12 people in a three bedroom house and one washroom,” he said.

Mr. Savikataaq also said he believes the increase in cases is linked to the number of cases going up in the south.

“The more cases there are, the more likelihood that the virus could come into Nunavut,” he said.

He said that since March there have been isolation hubs in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Edmonton where individuals must isolate in hotels for 14 days before coming to the territory.

The Premier believes this approach has been part of the territory’s success story and it has allowed for medical facilities to have the time to prepare.

“That gave us a lot of time that we needed,” he said.

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Nunavut is experienced at contact tracing because of the territory’s rate of tuberculosis, he added. But he warned that if COVID-19 spreads into too many communities, it will need help. The federal government is aware that assistance may be required, he said.

Prime Minister addressed the outbreaks in Nunavut on Tuesday and the lockdown set to go into effect in the territory on Wednesday morning.

“No one wanted to see this news,” Mr. Trudeau said. “But it was a possibility we had to be ready for.”

The Prime Minister also said the Liberal government has provided a three-month supply of personal protective equipment to Nunavut, as well as the other territories, to ensure communities are prepared if bad weather delays shipments.

“The federal government will continue to support the people of Nunavut, just like all Canadians,” he said. “That’s exactly what I told the premiers when we met last week.”

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo called the “explosion” of cases in the territory very concerning.

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“Based on the infrastructure, some of the communities have overcrowding housing situations,” he said.

Dr. Njoo said the decision made by Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer is an attempt to put a “clampdown” for the next two weeks.

He said, however, the situation in the territory is different from the situation in a province like British Columbia or Ontario and Quebec.

Even in Quebec and Ontario, the situation differs in urban areas and rural areas, Dr. Njoo said.

“At the end of the day, it really comes down, as we’ve always said, to … the local circumstance,” he said, adding that local officials look at data and contributors to community transmission.

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