Two communities in the Northwest Territories’ Dehcho region asked visitors to stay away as concern grew over a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Fort Liard.
Fort Liard, which now has three confirmed cases of the disease, is under a containment order that effectively shuts down many activities in the hamlet, including all gatherings, until January 30.
While territorial officials have said there is no exposure risk in Dehcho communities, leaders in Sambaa K’e and Jean Marie River said turning away visitors was necessary to protect residents, particularly Elders, from the threat of COVID-19.
Jessica Jumbo, a youth counsellor and council member in Sambaa K’e, said chief and council had ruled out visitors and asked residents of the small community – home to fewer than 100 people – to isolate for at least two weeks when returning even from other parts of the N.W.T.
Jumbo said only essential inbound traffic like mechanics, fuel trucks, and grocery deliveries would be permitted – with approval issued in advance.
Sambaa K’e is only accessible by road in winter. Jumbo said that played a part in the decision.
“The winter road season always has more traffic and transportation from those small communities that don’t get out, so we just wanted to tighten it up for extra protection – we can control it better,” she said.
“We’re such a small community with so few Elders left, and it does seem to have a high death rate with the older people. That’s really who we’re protecting right now.
“If something like that comes through any kind of small community, it could end up wiping out a whole generation. We lose more than just the family members.”
Chief of the Jean Marie River First Nation Stanley Sanguez said a sign outside the community now states: “Due to COVID-19, no outside visitors.”
Sanguez said stopping in the community for gas would, however, remain permissible for the time being.
Those looking to do so will be monitored by staff to make sure they go nowhere else and leave after filling up.
“We’re checking to make sure they’re only here for gas and then they’re out of here,” he said.
Sanguez said he will work to ensure community members wear masks both within Jean Marie River and when they travel elsewhere for supplies and groceries.
“When you go out to Fort Simpson or somewhere like Hay River, use your mask,” he said.
“You’ve got to use your mask, keep wiping your hands down, and trying to wipe things down when you do things in your vehicle, especially if you do travel.”
On Monday, Sanguez said, contact information will be added to the sign so people can reach community leaders with questions or concerns.
Rumours on social media suggesting people in a range of N.W.T. communities had contracted COVID-19 were rejected by territorial leaders on Sunday.
Minister Shane Thompson, MLA for the Nahendeh region that includes many Dehcho communities, said on Facebook there was “no exposure risk identified in Fort Simpson or Nahanni Butte in the course of the investigation at this time.”
Thompson urged people to follow pandemic health guidelines and promised updates if anything changes.
He said there was no evidence to suggest anyone should be worried about having worked at or shopped in the same community stores as anyone with COVID-19.
“The direction to everyone in the territory is to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, stay home if they’re feeling unwell, and contact their local health centre to get a COVID-19 test at the first sign of any illness,” Thompson wrote.
At a news conference on Sunday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola reiterated that message, saying the territorial government had a “good grasp” on close contacts from the three Fort Liard cases to date.
“There is no scenario where there is an unidentified case in another community or an unidentified close contact in another community that hasn’t been made aware,” she said.
Kandola said there are currently about 50 people isolating in connection with the three confirmed cases.
Establishments in Fort Simpson ramped up cleaning protocols on the weekend, many of them closing for deep cleaning or changing their store hours.
Muaz Hassan, owner of the village’s Unity Store, said masks were now mandatory inside the building.
The Nahanni Inn is open for takeout only and asked residents to wear a mask when picking up orders.
The Icebreaker Lounge will be closed until further notice. Pandaville will open on Tuesday for takeout only, with patrons required to wear a mask when coming to pick up orders.
Beauty Mark Salon will be closed until further notice with appointments being rescheduled.
Fort Simpson Beverages and Gardens, the village’s liquor shop, is keeping its regular hours and said it would continue its existing sanitizing and cleaning protocols.
The village’s recreation centre will be closed until at least Monday, at which point staff will evaluate whether to reopen.
The fitness centre will remain open due to a low number of users, though masks are now mandatory at all times within the facility.
“Security cameras will be checked daily and users caught not wearing a mask will have their key fob suspended for one month,” Andre Bolduc, the village’s recreation coordinator, posted to Facebook.