Canadian local leaders voice anger with N.W.T. policy on identifying communities with COVID-19

Deninu K’ue First Nation Chief Louis Balsillie stands in front of the Our Great Elders extended care facility in Fort Resolution, N.W.T. Balsillie authored a letter to the territory’s chief public health officer criticising her policy of not identifying which communities have cases of COVID-19. (Submitted by Louis Balsillie)
A pair of letters, sent from Fort Resolution Mayor Patrick Simon and Deninue K’ue First Nation Chief Louis Balsillie, are challenging N.W.T. health officials’ policy of not notifying local leadership when cases of COVID-19 are identified in their communities.

“Your citing humanitarian ends for not informing a community will lead to the death of our elders,” Balsillie wrote in a letter sent Monday to the territory’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola. “That is not humanitarian.”

Fort Resolution is the first community outside of Yellowknife and Inuvik to have had a confirmed case of COVID-19. Government policy dictates that the location of confirmed cases will not be identified unless they occur in Fort Smith, Hay River, Yellowknife or Inuvik, for privacy reasons.

Balsillie’s letter, and a second addressed from Simon to Premier Caroline Cochrane, say the territory’s efforts at tracing the individual’s contacts have been insufficient.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” reads Simon’s letter. “It is imperative that a thorough investigation be conducted to determine the movements of this individual as we are now attempting to mitigate any possibility of further infection in our community.”

COVID-19 patient had untraced contacts: chief

Balsillie’s letter disputes territorial health officials’ assertion that there was “no evidence” the individual encountered other people in such a way that the “community would have been exposed.”

“Had you informed myself, the Fort Resolution Métis president and the mayor … we could have told you that this person did have contacts,” the letter reads.

People become angry in these situations due to a fear of the unknown — your policy created an unknown.Chief Louis Balsillie

Balsillie says before the individual developed symptoms, they came into contact with a furnace repair person — “an essential service person” — who “went home to his wife and grandchildren” unaware he had been exposed.

He also says spreading knowledge of the case would have helped with enforcement of public health orders encouraging people to self-isolate.

“Had they known there was a case in our community they may have been frightened into compliance,” he writes. “The reality is, not everyone will follow physical distancing rules until they believe there is a consequence.”

Territory uncompromising on privacy

Balsillie has been vocal about the policy of not notifying local leadership when cases are identified before. Last week, he took to Facebook to publicize the existence of the case in Fort Resolution.

On Saturday, in response, Kandola and Cochrane doubled down on the policy of not identifying small communities with COVID-19 during a press conference.

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T., said she was ‘bound by oath’ to protect patient privacy in a press conference Saturday. (Walter Strong/CBC)

At that time, Kandola said “knowing what community COVID-19 is in will not make you safer,” adding that she was “bound by oath” to protect patient confidentiality.

Balsillie’s letter questions the validity of that approach.

“Had you informed our community governments of [their] COVID-19 positive status … she would have been protected, not harmed,” the letter reads. “That is our way.”

“People become angry in these situations due to a fear of the unknown — your policy created an unknown.”

Balsillie’s letter points to Nunavut and the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, where officials have decided to identify which communities have cases of COVID-19.

By contrast, Simon writes that he has “accepted the fact that Dr. Kandola would not release a name and location.”

But “once it became public knowledge that, in fact, our community was host to the fourth case of COVID-19 … many leaders wanted answers,” it continues. “The [territorial government] was not forthcoming.”

Simon’s letter asks that the territorial government develop a “protocol” for briefing local leadership “as quickly as possible” after cases are identified.

“We are demanding the [territorial government] provide us, without delay, the answers we are looking for,” it concludes.

The Office of the Chief Public Health Officer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Related stories from around the North:

Arctic: Roundup of COVID-19 responses around the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Canada: Canada’s PM OKs use of local reserve forces in Arctic Quebec during COVID-19 pandemic, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Visits to commercial establishments down sharply in Finnish Lapland, Google data, Yle News

Greenland: COVID-19: Arctic science expedition postpones flight campaign after trainee tests positive for virus, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norway to focus on civil society, press freedom as chair of Barents Euro-Arctic Council, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic oil plans in Norway and Russia disrupted amid COVID-19 crisis, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Why are Sweden’s politicians taking a different tack for coronavirus?, Radio Sweden

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