Coro ’NO’ virus!

Oct 21, 2020

Introducing Nunavut, the place in Canada with zero cases of Coronavirus, and what we could learn and implement in the future, from their approach of handling the pandemic.

Covid-19 cases are rising in many parts of Canada, but one region – Nunavut, a northern territory – is a rare place in North America that can say it’s free of coronavirus within its communities.

What actions did Nunavut implement at the beginning?

When borders around the world started to shut when the coronavirus cases began to drastically rise, government officials in Nunavut made the decision to take no risks and they brought in some of the strictest travel regulations in Canada, barring entry to almost all non-residents.

One of the main reasons behind there being 0 reported cases, were the measures that the area had put into place. Any returning inhabitants were put up in ‘isolation hubs’ at the government’s expense, at hotels within Winnepeg, Yellowknife, Ottawa or Edmonton. Security guards were in place within the hotels and nurses checked in on the health of those isolating. To date there are just over 7000 Nunavummiut who have spent time in these hubs as a stopover before returning to their homes.

What challenges have Nunavut officials come up against?

Like many areas, the people were caught breaking isolation and had stays extended, which in part contributed to occasional waiting times to enter some of the hubs. There were also complaints about the food available to those confined there but, as the coronavirus infections spread throughout Canada, and with the number of cases on the rise once again, the official case count in Nunavut remains zero. 

What is the effect of these challenges?

The average number of people being sent to hospital each day is also rising in the places with the most cases, and health officials have warned a major surge still has the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system. Additionally, infections have begun making their way back into long-term care homes. In late September, there was an outbreak linked to workers who flew in from the south to a remote gold mine 160km (100 miles) from the Arctic Circle. (Those cases are currently being counted as infections in the miners’ home jurisdictions, keeping the territory’s official case count at nil). That outbreak has “almost no chance” of spreading in the community because there hasn’t been any travel between the mine and any of the communities for months, says Dr Patterson.

How are other parts of the country responding to a second wave of the virus?

Parts of Ontario and Quebec have brought back some lockdown measures as they try to bring infections under control, pressing pause on such things as indoor dining and gyms in hotspots like Montreal and Toronto. However, other parts of Canada are doing much better. Atlantic Canada, the four provinces east of Quebec, have been able to limit community spread and implemented a travel bubble, with free movement for residents and strict 14-day isolation orders for outside travellers.

How is the country performing in terms of overall testing for the virus?

The country is still lagging in testing capacity, and has experienced long queues and slow turnarounds for results in some areas as children returned to school. About 77,000 Canadians are being tested daily, but the goal is to be able to test up to 200,000 daily nationwide. Most communities don’t have the capacity to do Covid-19 testing locally, so tests have to be flown in and out. Early on, tests results could take a week, meaning “you’re really, really far behind by the time you can identify and respond”, Dr Patterson says. There are efforts under way to boost testing capacity and turnaround times for results in the territory.

Even though the community cases are ‘zero’ it has still had an impact on the overall day to day lives of the residents. They have had to close schools and partake in home learning. Due to the location of Nunavut, the internet speeds are slow and unreliable so this has put an added strain onto the already poor performing Wi-fi network. Also, the Iqaluit post office was already one of the busiest in Canada, since so many residents depend on Amazon’s free delivery to the Arctic city. The post office has seen a spike in the number of parcels during the pandemic “beyond anything we could have anticipated”, Canada Post said in a statement. 

Since the strict measures came into force in Nunavut in March, there has been some relaxation of regulations.  With some conditions, Nunavummiut can now travel to the Northwest Territories and back without isolating, as can people going to Churchill, Manitoba for medical treatment. But there needs to be measures in place to limit contagion when the virus does make its way to Nunavut, says Dr Patterson, who doesn’t think it will be free of Covid-19 forever.