Small N.W.T. communities want to know of local COVID-19 cases

Many small communities are not happy with a decision by the N.W.T. chief public health officer to put personal privacy ahead of letting the people in small communities know if there are any cases of COVID-19 is in their community.

“Of course they should know,” said Chief Darrel Betsaka of Nahanni Butte. “There’s no reason not to let them know. I mean, it’s a world pandemic.”

The decision to withhold information from small communities was contained in a public health advisory sent out Saturday by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer. It notified people that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the N.W.T. had been diagnosed in Yellowknife.

The advisory went on to note, “The public is being notified of the community because the size of Yellowknife allows privacy to be sufficiently protected. In smaller communities, the public should not expect to be informed of the community.”

Questioned about that during a press-conference on Saturday, the chief public health officer seemed to backtrack slightly, saying it’s something the health department will figure out when and if it is necessary.

Some decisions to be made on case-by-case basis

“With other communities, like Fort Smith, Hay River and Inuvik, they’re large enough populations that it could be assessed case-by-case,” said Dr. Kami Kandola. “But in specific communities where there’s a small population we have to make that judgement.”

Some leaders in small communities said it would be helpful to know if there’s COVID-19 in their communities.

“It would be nice if they’d contact the office here, so we could do what we can to help,” said Tsiigehtchic Chief Phillip Blake.

We all know who is out, where they go, and when they will be coming back.– Joanne Ogina, acting senior administrative officer for Uluhaktok, N.W.T.

“The community itself should be told if someone here has it, so they can take more precautions,” said John Holland, senior administrative officer in Paulatuk, N.W.T. He said the biggest concern there right now is people coming in from outside the fly-in community, such as tourists and sport-hunters.

Holland and Uluhaktok, N.W.T., acting senior administrative officer Joanne Ogina said it would be difficult to keep a COVID-19 case, or just about anything else for that matter, secret in a small community.

“We all know who is out, where they go, and when they will be coming back,” said Ogina, who also believes communities should be informed of any COVID-19 cases. She said, despite how isolated the tiny Arctic community is, the threat of the virus is being taken very seriously. The hamlet has cancelled all events, including those planned around Easter, and cancelled plans to build an ice rink.

“There’s a lot of people here being very cautious,” said Ogina. “They’re hardly going around, just to the store and back home.”

The Yukon is also allowing personal privacy to trump small communities’ right to know if the virus has reached them.  Nunavut’s health minister took the opposite approach.

“When I announce a case, there will be 38,000 people in 25 communities who are quite concerned,” said Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health. “This is a break from some other protocols, and this is something that I have not done with other communicable diseases. But in order to lighten the load on the other 24 communities, we will announce it.”

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