Caroline Cochrane: COVID-19 Preparedness

Yellowknife — March 16, 2020
Ministers' Statements and Speeches

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the members of this Assembly for taking the step of suspending its current sitting after today to allow Cabinet and the public service greater opportunity to prepare for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Although there remains no reported case in the NWT, our government continues to prepare for the impact of this pandemic.  Hour to hour, we are monitoring the state of the COVID-19 situation as it continues to evolve. I want to share with the Assembly some of the actions and planning that is underway.

Our health system has been preparing over the last few months, as the concern over this new virus became known. This planning has included securing additional supplies and preparing staff and facilities to respond to an outbreak.

Our health officials have also been working with partners - including the Government of Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada – to stay current with the most recent information and recommendations about this disease. 

Based on these discussions, our Chief Public Health Officer has been working tirelessly with her colleagues to provide the best available advice to officials and the public about how to identify and care for those infected and prevent the spread of this disease.

One thing we know is that we can slow the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact on our communities if everyone follows the advice of our Chief Public Health Officer, and takes the necessary precautions to protect themselves and most importantly to safeguard those who may be more vulnerable including our elders.

We are fortunate that our health system has not yet had to face any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the NWT, but we know that this virus is spreading and we all need to take personal steps to slow the spread of this illness. By slowing the rate of infection, our health system will be better able to effectively respond to this pandemic.  

On Friday, our Health and Social Services Minister thanked our many health care professionals for their dedication and service, and Mr. Speaker on behalf of all of us here in this assembly, and on behalf of the people of the Northwest Territories, I want to also thank them for their efforts to look after us all. We know their work will become more challenging as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread.   

Over the weekend, we have also taken the extraordinary step of asking our health care professionals to avoid any unnecessary travel outside of the NWT. This will prevent exposure and help avoid the potential requirements for isolation and will ensure that the NWT health system can maintain as much operational readiness as possible to manage the spread of this disease.

Mr. Speaker, work to prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic in the Northwest Territories began even before the World Health Organization declared one. In addition to the measures our health system has put in place to identify, prevent and control the spread of infectious disease, our Government also has dedicated resources and procedures to manage emergencies.

Our Department of Municipal and Community Affairs includes the Emergency Management Organization established under the Emergency Management Act. Its role is, in part, to lead the Government of the Northwest Territories in the coordination of emergency management activities, support emergency management activities of local authorities, and coordinate and assist in the response of governments and public agencies.

The head of the Emergency Management Office also chairs the Territorial Planning Committee that works with community governments and other key partners to ensure readiness, and to respond to emergencies. 

Again, although we have yet to face a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the NWT, we have taken the proactive step of activating an Emergency Operations Centre under MACA’s leadership as of March 13, 2020 and work will continue to assist all communities in the NWT to help prevent or manage any COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr. Speaker, later this week I will also be convening a virtual meeting with community governments and Indigenous governments to share the latest information we have on our readiness and our plans. We will continue to meet regularly with them to work together to eliminate any gaps in our plans and support our efforts. 

We know that many communities and jurisdictions in Canada and throughout the world have made the decision to temporarily close schools as result of this pandemic. The Minister of Education, Culture and Employment has consulted with the Chief Public Health Officer on this, and has received the advice today to close NWT schools until after Easter. Later today, the Minister will be convening a teleconference with all District Education Authorities to discuss this direction and how best to support school teachers, staff and students as they return from Spring Break travel.

Mr. Speaker, as we prepare for this pandemic, the health and safety of our people is paramount. Every GNWT department and agency has been tasked with identifying and planning for the continuation of essential services. If a large number of our employees are required to self-isolate to prevent the further spread of the virus, we know that government services may face a significant disruption. It is critical that key services remain supported, and we are taking the proper steps to deal with a scenario where we have dramatically fewer available employees.

All departments and agencies have been updating their Business Continuity Plans and later this week these plans will be finalized, and validated with table top exercises to ensure potential gaps have been identified and can be addressed. We know that the work of our government touches upon the lives of the people we serve in important ways, and that we need to make sure that there is as little disruption as possible should we find that many of our employees have to be isolated to care for themselves or others. Our planning will also consider how best to manage the NWT supply chain to help ensure that residents and businesses continue to receive essential services.

Mr. Speaker, it is important to state again that the NWT has no reported cases of COVID-19 and that the risk of contracting the disease in the NWT remains low today.  This does not mean that we can rest easy. We must be prepared to take preventative actions now.

In recent days, we have seen many jurisdictions implement new measures in response to having the virus already spreading within their borders. We have the ability to take measures sooner than others to better manage the risk. This will mean some disruption in travel for residents coming home who will need to self-isolate, and tourists who will have to postpone their visits the NWT.

It is critically important that all residents of, and visitors to, the NWT take precautions and follow the advice of our Chief Public Health Officer. As our preparations continue it is also critical that our community partners work with MACA’s Emergency Operations Centre to ensure plans are in place, and that every effort is made to minimize the risk and manage the impacts of this pandemic.  

We are implementing the best approaches available to slow and manage the spread of COVID-19. While we must not panic, we do have to take precautions.

I want to thank all residents of the Northwest Territories for their understanding as we direct more of the work of our government to managing this issue, and acknowledge that some of this effort will necessarily come at the expense of other priorities. However, protecting our most vulnerable from this pandemic is our most important priority, and we are working closely with our service providers to develop plans.

Mr. Speaker, we know that the consequences of this pandemic are already having an impact on our economy, and that many of our residents and businesses will need support. These concerns have been raised with the Prime Minister, and I am very encouraged that there is clearly recognition that new federal programs and investments will be required to protect our economy. Additional options to provide support to our residents and businesses are being actively considered.   

Information on the spread of this new virus and knowledge of how best to manage its impacts has been changing rapidly. That is why we are working closely with our partners from across all jurisdictions to stay up to date on the latest information. We will be providing daily reports and have set up a single portal for more information at www.gov.nt.ca and click on the corona virus feature box. The website is being updated as new information becomes available.

We recognize that people are concerned, but I want to remind everbody that we can all take practical steps to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We will continue to update our residents, our communities, and Indigenous government partners, and I strongly urge everybody to check our website frequently and heed the advice of the Chief Public Health Officer and our Emergency Management Office as we work together to safeguard our friends, families and our elders.

Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.