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Is Nunavut’s health department ready for a Covid-19 outbreak?

As Nunavummiut wait to see when Covid-19 will be detected in the territory, the Department of Health is reporting a robust number of doctors and the vast majority of nursing positions are filled.

This is a variation of the N95 respirator, which helps prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. The masks are in short supply at many medical institutions across Canada.
Staff Sgt. Sara Keller, U.S. Air Force photo/Wikimedia Commons

As of last week, Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet were overstaffed with physicians in case extra support to smaller communities is required. There was also a doctor in each of Baker Lake, Arviat and Cambridge Bay.

Chief public health officer Michael Patterson acknowledged that Covid-19 has influenced staffing, but it’s not all been negative.

“I know of at least three or four physicians from Iqaluit who either have cancelled or we have cancelled because they’ve come from an area with a fair amount of COVID-19,” Patterson said of southern doctors on contract. “I also know of a number of doctors and nurses who have volunteered or agreed to stay longer. So at the moment we actually have more physicians in Nunavut than we expected in mid-February, so we’re doing OK at the moment.”

When it comes to nurses, the Department of Health revealed 106 nursing vacancies out of 294 total positions as of Dec. 12, the most recent figures available, according to the department. However, casual nurses are filling the void in all but 17 of those permanent spots. By comparison, there were 295 total nursing positions in February 2019 and there were 119 vacancies at that time largely being covered by casual and agency nurses.

One of the provisions in place during the pandemic is for expedited Nunavut and NWT nursing licences to be issued to qualified nurses from other jurisdictions who are willing to come to the North, said Denise Bowen, executive director of the Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“We’re ready to give them a licence quickly,” Bowen said, adding that licences for telehealth can also be accelerated.

There’s high demand for medical professionals across the country right now and “everybody’s trying to maximize their staff and get people doing the right job,” Bowen acknowledged.

In the legislative assembly in early March, Health Minister George Hickes said Nunavut has contracts with other Canadian jurisdictions to import nurses in an emergency, but their availability would depend on how much staffing pressure those provinces are under.

Protective equipment and ventilators

The Department of Health stated last week that orders of swabs and masks – including 12,000 masks donated by energy company Suncor – were recently delivered and distributed throughout the territory. Swabs are used to take samples inside patients’ nostrils for Covid-19 testing.

Other personal protective equipment includes gowns, gloves and face shields. Those items are “being delivered as product becomes available,” according to the department.

Bowen said she hasn’t heard any concerns from medical staff that there’s an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment.

The Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut follows recommendations from the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., Bowen noted. Best practices for medical professionals and guidelines for the public have changed a number of times.

“It’s very fluid. Things change on a daily basis,” Bowen said. “You have to recognize the fear that healthcare workers face. You’ve got to protect yourself… I think everybody’s working as diligently and hard as they can to ensure people are as safe as possible in the situation we have ourselves in.”

Nunavut’s Department of Health also had five portable ventilators en route last week. That was part of an order of eight ventilators. Three of the machines, which aid patients in breathing, are still pending. That will supplement the territory’s existing seven portable ventilators.

Whether Nunavut’s number of ventilators will prove to be sufficient depends on whether an outbreak of the coronavirus strikes in many communities simultaneously, Patterson said.

“If it hits at all, if we can even work to keep it from spreading between communities or slow it down, then that gives us time to shift resources into communities,” he said.

-with files from Rajnesh Sharma

Fact file
Nunavut health staff levels
Iqaluit: 28
Rankin Inlet: 4
Cambridge Bay: 1
Baker Lake: 1
Arviat: 1

Nurses (as of Dec. 12)
Total positions: 294
Permanent staff: 184
Total Vacant: 110
Casual staff: 112
Vacancies when casuals are included: 17

Total nursing positions: 96
Permanent staff: 66
Total vacant: 30
Casual staff: 32

Baffin (excluding Iqaluit)
Total nursing positions: 71
Permanent staff: 46
Total vacant: 25
Casual staff: 24

Total nursing positions: 79
Permanent staff: 45
Total vacant: 36
Casual staff: 42

Total nursing positions: 48
Permanent staff: 29
Total vacant: 19
Casual staff: 14

Source: Department of Health