Caroline Cochrane: GNWT COVID-19 Response and COVID Secretariat Wind Down

Ministers' Statements and Speeches

Yellowknife — March 7, 2022

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Mr. Speaker, it has been two years since COVID-19 changed our lives here in the NWT. When the outbreak started, we did not know what to expect, how long it would last, when vaccines would be available and how we would have to adapt. We also did not fully understand the toll it would take on all of us, especially health care providers.

Our communities have been hard hit. We have lost 19 residents, including Elders and Knowledge Keepers. Others have suffered from serious illness. Another reality is that we still do not know the long-term affects of COVID-19.

Mr. Speaker, it would be challenging to find a resident who is not tired of the pandemic and the restrictions that have been put into place. Early on, these restrictions were one of the few tools we had. That has changed, with vaccines and anti-viral medications now available. It is now time to give residents the responsibility to manage their own risk tolerance and make their own choices. We are ready to look past the pandemic and the Public Health Emergency to our new normal.  

Just as the Chief Public Health Officer followed an evidence-based approach to put measures into place, we will now follow the same evidence-based approach to end the Public Health Emergency. This is the general framework provided in Emerging Wisely, all the while adapting to the Delta and Omicron variants we have experienced since the Fall.

Mr. Speaker, we are in a good position to shift our focus to preventing severe illness from COVID-19 resulting in hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths. Better tools mean more options. It is important to note that this approach is not a new one; this is more in line with how we deal with influenza, and many other seasonal viruses.

We all want to get back to normal. But by now, we all understand that it will be a new kind of normal.

I cannot stress this enough: the end of the territorial Public Health Emergency is not the end of COVID-19, Mr. Speaker. Future scenarios and finalized advice regarding life with COVID-19 post-pandemic is still being discussed at the national level by Chief Medical Officers of Health across Canada. COVID-19 is different than any virus that we have dealt with in most of our lifetimes, and we need to keep our guard up as we learn to normalize living with it.

The shutdown of the COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat will be timed to coincide with the end of Public Health Emergency. When this happens there are several services provided by the Secretariat currently that will no longer be required. The existence of the Secretariat was intended to be temporary, and its closure was always anticipated.

At the same time, we must ensure we have resources available to deal with COVID-19 as an endemic disease. That means looking at the resources necessary to respond to COVID-19 post-Public Health Emergency.

Mr. Speaker, as we have experienced and learned, our approach needs to be flexible enough to adapt when needed. The NWT will still experience community outbreaks for some time into the future. The continued evolution of variants of concern introduces significant uncertainty, and the GNWT must remain prepared to respond in the coming months.

Mr. Speaker, when the Public Health Emergency ends, we will no longer need border security and self-isolation plans. We have already removed the requirement for isolating in a regional hub community.

What will be maintained within multiple GNWT departments is the ability to respond to outbreaks and protect vulnerable populations. This also includes being prepared to support communities through readiness planning and outbreak response. We anticipate this readiness response system to be in place for one year but will depend on the COVID-19 situation as it unfolds.

This means maintaining some level of capacity in client services such as the 811-phone line. It means ensuring we have good public health policy around risk management measures, while maintaining a level of compliance, community outreach and education, and the capacity to effectively communicate.

We need to maintain effective testing and a public health early warning surveillance strategy.  An example is our wastewater surveillance program that has garnered international recognition.

Lastly, Mr. Speaker, we need to recognize that this is now a community-based approach. We need to work with communities to support them with future outbreaks.

The Secretariat was established in September 2020 to bring together, within a single agency, the critical functions needed to respond to public health orders and recommendations related to the pandemic. It has always been an entity with an end date. Even so, I want to express my gratitude to the people who took up the challenge to work for the Secretariat these past two years.  Important work has been done to set us up for this moment, and our future success.

Mr. Speaker, changes are coming in the next few weeks. I want to re-assure all Northerners that the GNWT remains committed to the goal of protecting their health and well-being. There may be a lingering sense of uncertainty, as there usually is when change happens.  We have prepared for this day and will be moving forward with a plan for the future. We know we are asking residents to adapt again. We have gotten through the Public Health Emergency together, and we will learn to adapt to our new normal, together.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.