Covid-19 cases are rising in many parts of Canada, but one region – Nunavut, a northern territory – is a lone place in North American that can say it’s free of coronavirus in its communities.
Last March, as borders around the world were slamming shut as coronavirus infections rose, officials in Nunavut decided they too would take no risks.
They brought in some of the strictest travel regulations in Canada, barring entry to the territory almost all non-residents.
Residents returning home from the south would first have to spend two weeks, at the Nunavut government’s expense, in “isolation hubs” – hotels in the cities of Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Ottawa or Edmonton.
Security guards are stationed throughout the hotels, and nurses check in on the health of those isolating. To date, just over 7,000 Nunavummiut have spent time in these hubs as a stopover on their return home.
It’s not been without challenges: People have been caught breaking isolation and have had stays extended, which has in part contributed to occasional wait times to enter the some of the hubs. There have been complaints about the food available to those confined to the hubs.
But, as coronavirus infections spread throughout Canada, and with the number of cases on the rise again, the official case count in Nunavut remains zero.
The “fairly drastic” decision to bring in these measures was made both due to the population’s potential vulnerability to Covid-19 and the unique challenges of the Arctic region, says Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr Michael Patterson.
About 36,000 people live in Nunavut, bounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Northwest Territories to the west, in 25 communities scattered across its two million square kilometres (809,000 square miles). That’s about three times the size of the largest US state – Texas.
The distances are “mind-boggling at times”, admits Dr Patterson.
Natural isolation is likely part of the reason for the lack of cases – those communities can only be reached year-round by plane.
In late September, there was an outbreak linked to workers who flew in from the south to a remote gold mine 160km (100 miles) from the Arctic Circle.
(Those cases are currently being counted as infections in the miners’ home jurisdictions, keeping the territory’s official positive count nil).
That outbreak has “almost no chance” of spreading in the community because there hasn’t been any travel between the mine and any of the communities for months, says Dr Patterson.
But where isolation can help, it can also create hurdles.
Most communities don’t have the capacity to do Covid-19 testing locally, so tests have to be flown in and out.
Early on, tests results could take a week meaning “you’re really, really far behind by the time you can identify and respond”, Dr Patterson says. There are efforts underway to boost testing capacity and turnaround times