Wastewater Sampling to Form COVID-19 “Early-Warning” System for Northwest Territories

News Releases

Yellowknife — September 10, 2020

YELLOWKNIFE (September 10, 2020) – Regular surveillance to identify the presence or absence of COVID-19 will soon be possible because of a wastewater testing program initiated by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT).

This program will collect regular samples of wastewater (sewage) from Hay River, Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Fort Simpson, which will be tested for COVID-19. 

It is expected these samples will cover approximately half of the territory’s population. They will also cover 100% of all the isolation centres in Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Yellowknife.

This form of surveillance has been found to uncover trends of COVID-19 in the community 4-10 days earlier than clinical data would by detecting the presence of the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic populations.

The presence of COVID-19 in wastewater samples does not necessarily indicate there is active COVID-19 transmission in the community.

However, collecting this information can serve as an early warning system for the territory and help the health and social services system target advice to communities as the pandemic continues.

Initial samples have been collected in Yellowknife and Hay River with implementation in the other three communities beginning in the coming weeks.

The effort will be led by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer in partnership with Municipal and Community Affairs, and Environment and Natural Resources. As a key partner, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory is providing in-kind testing.

An investment of $100,000 from Indigenous Services Canada allowed the territory to purchase the necessary testing equipment and to coordinate the delivery of this program.

The necessary equipment to begin automatic sampling at regular time intervals is expected to arrive in two-to-three weeks.

Initial grab samples are being collected at Yellowknife and Hay River to define processes in the meantime. 



“Our territory is using every tool at our disposal to prepare for another surge in infections across Canada. Establishing an early-warning system using wastewater samples will allow us to have a much better idea of whether COVID-19 is present in our territory, give communities advice, and get people tested if they need it.”

-Caroline Cochrane, Premier of the Northwest Territories


“This innovative early detection initiative will allow the Northwest Territories to learn how wastewater surveillance can play an important role in identifying and preventing further spread of COVID-19 by collaborating with scientists from the Public Health Agency of Canada and assisting their researchers in engaging First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. We must continue to support these initiatives that are essential to prevent, prepare and respond to stop the spread of any potential COVID-19 outbreak.”

-The Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services


Quick facts:

  • The Chief Public Health Officer would alert the public regarding positive wastewater results and provide applicable guidance at that time.
  • Upon a positive result, guidance and outreach will be targeted at those in the community who have:
    • Arrived in the NWT after travel from outside the territory since the last negative wastewater result; and
    • Developed symptoms of COVID-19.
  • The recommendation to get tested for COVID-19 and any other necessary advice will be provided.
  • This strategy would evolve if community transmission develops.
  • The presence of COVID-19 in wastewater samples alone will not result in aggressive containment measures as it could be connected to imported travel cases being appropriately isolated.
  • Public health measures like limits on large-scale gatherings or mandatory masking in indoor public spaces will be considered depending on the strength of the signal.


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Media contact:

Mike Westwick

Manager, Communications and Public Affairs

COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat