A remote territory in Canada that had completely avoided COVID-19 for nearly nine months went into lockdown on Wednesday after the number of COVID-19 cases hit 60.
Nunavut has been repeatedly praised for being one of the rare parts of the world that managed to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak; the territory didn’t report a positive infection until November 6. Now there are four affected communities.
The territory was largely able to avoid the virus because the government enforced stringent public health measures, including a mandatory two-week quarantine for all travellers before they enter the territory—an initiative that has cost millions.
Experts say it makes sense that the virus finally crossed into Nunavut as Canada grapples with a frightening second wave and higher than ever infection rates.
“We are seeing very troubling developments in the trajectory of COVID-19 recently,” Canada’s Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam tweeted. “Case counts, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise, with increasing spillover into vulnerable populations.”
In March, Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut's chief public health officer, said COVID-19 could have devastating impacts because the territory struggles with overcrowded housing, making social distancing difficult. Now, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq is echoing the concern as he spearheads a two-week lockdown of all non-essential businesses.
“We have so much overcrowding within Nunavut in all 25 of our communities and that is a problem in terms of whether you can isolate and whether the virus will spread,” Savikataaq told CTV News.
As well as housing issues, Nunavut, which is primarily Inuit, has to manage scant healthcare services and disproportionate rates of tuberculosis—all of which make many residents more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes.
The premier said his government is able to manage outbreaks in the four affected communities, but if the situation gets worse, he will need to turn to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for support.
Arviat, a hamlet with a majority Inuit population, reported 26 of Nunavut’s latest cases, while Whale Cove has confirmed eight. There are no roads connecting the two fly-in communities, but according to CBC News, people often ride snowmobiles to travel between them. One Whale Cove case has been linked to Arviat.
Rankin Inlet and Sanikiluaq have also confirmed positive cases.
Nunavut’s outbreak likely originated in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Savikataaq said.
“The last week has shown us just how quickly COVID-19 spreads. This rate and reach of transmission will continue to grow if we don’t each do our part,” Patterson said in a statement.
Beginning Wednesday, all nonessential businesses and services—hair salons, massage parlours, gyms, bars, among others—have to close for two weeks and people who can work from home are encouraged to do so. Restaurants can only offer takeout, schools are moving to virtual learning, and daycares will only serve essential workers.
People are strongly encouraged to wear face masks indoors, maintain physical distancing, and wash their hands frequently. Gatherings of more than five people are prohibited.
“Nobody is above the rules here. Do not visit. Do not socialize outside your household,” Savikataaq said. “We all need to work together to protect one another.”
As of Wednesday morning, Canada had a total of 306,468 positive COVID-19 cases and 11,086 deaths.
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