In 24 hours, contact tracers isolated 20 people in the predominantly Inuit community on the northeastern tip of Baffin Island who could have been exposed to the infected resident. Thirteen were collected for the virus. They were negative.
“We were a little confused,” said Patterson, the best doctor in Nunavut. So he had the original swab retested. Again, it was negative.
The territory announced the false positive, the population of 39,000 spread over an area slightly larger than Mexico breathed a sigh of relief, and Patterson lowered the total number of confirmed cases of covid-19.
More than a month after the false alarm, Nunavut remains the only state jurisdiction in North America not to register a single case of virus that has made millions of people sick and killed more than 370,000 people worldwide . All other Canadian provinces and territories and all American and Mexican states have cases of coronavirus.
“There are still no confirmed or probable cases of covid-19 in Nunavut,” said Premier Joe Savikataaq. at a press conference last week. “And I’m always happy to say it. “
Keeping it that way is vital – and that meant making tough decisions.
The remoteness of the territory – its 25 hamlets and the capital of Iqaluit are interconnected and the rest of Canada only by air – could help reduce the risk of the virus arriving. But it also makes it one of the most vulnerable places in Canada where the virus has spread.
The only hospital in Nunavut, in Iqaluit, has 35 beds. Most Nunavummiut leave the territory for medical care, from chemotherapy to diagnostic imaging, including childbirth. There are no intensive care beds and only a dozen ventilators.
A chronic housing shortage in a territory where average temperatures are well below freezing most of the year means that several generations generally live under the same roof, which makes social distancing difficult. Nunavut is also facing food insecurity and epidemics of tuberculosis, a respiratory disease introduced by Europeans centuries ago.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized last year for the government’s management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s. The Inuit were taken from their families, sent to sanatoriums and are not never returned as part of what he called “a greater history of destructive colonialism”.
Inuit, who make up 85% of the population of Nunavut, are 300 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than any non-Aboriginal person born in Canada.
“If the virus gets into a community, it could potentially be quite catastrophic,” said Collen Davison, an epidemiologist at Queen’s University in Ontario.
So Nunavut has implemented strict measures. The territorial government has banned most foreigners, including other Canadians. Critical workers and returning residents, including patients on medical travel, must undergo a 14-day quarantine at a government-selected hotel in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife in the neighboring Northwest Territories. Only asymptomatic residents with a letter from Patterson can return.
A total of 908 residents have completed quarantine, according to health department spokesperson Scott Hitchcox; nearly 240 others are isolated. He said the government spent $ 2.8 million on “isolation centers” as of May 6 and that 140 people were denied entry.
Some complain that the measures are too harsh. An Iqaluit woman told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that quarantine looked like “prison”. She could only get outside air when she was escorted by security.
“I understand their concerns,” said Patterson. “We are not going to pretend it will be a pleasant experience. . . . This is the best way to minimize the risks of this situation where we have several epidemics dispersed in several communities at the same time. “
He doesn’t think travel restrictions will work indefinitely. But he said they be one of the last restrictions lifted.
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who represents Nunavut in Parliament, recently returned to her hometown of Baker Lake – an inner hamlet where you can see “miles and miles” – after about 14 days of quarantine.
She feared to introduce the virus into the community and supported the restrictions. But she said it was possible that they would not have to be as serious if the federal government had resolved Nunavut’s long-standing health care and housing inequalities.
“There were many things that could have been done to keep people from feeling as frustrated, stressed or upset,” said Qaqqaq. “I constantly feel like I am trying to justify why our lives should be treated like the lives of others. “
The federal government has announced its support for northern airlines and has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Aboriginal communities during the pandemic. But Qaqqaq said that some of the money promised to Nunavut was slow to arrive and was just a bandage.
Nunavut begins to reopen on Monday. Daycares will open, but schools will remain closed – a much more cautious approach than that adopted in the hard-hit provinces. Construction companies in 19 hamlets can resume work on key infrastructure such as airports and housing once outside workers have completed their quarantine.
After two weeks, officials will decide whether the restrictions should be tightened, maintained or softened more. The territory needs to move carefully, said Patterson, as many tests are sent to laboratories in the south and results can take several days.
“If we are not careful and there is a lust in the territory,” he said, “we could have many more contacts and more cases by the time we know the first case. “
Donat Jeanson runs a grocery store in Clyde River, a community of approximately 1,000 people on the shore of Patricia Bay on Baffin Island. Originally from Winnipeg, he feels “proud” of living in territory that has avoided the virus, he said, and “cannot complain” about the restrictions.
The impact of the pandemic on supply chains means that his northern store – the Clyde River “hub” – had problems storing products such as diapers, baby wipes and rice.
Jeanson said that many people follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks in the store. He hopes that the territory will continue to keep the virus away.
“People are very united,” he said. “It would be a bad situation. “