Gov’t has struggled to support those in isolation hubs, emails show
Department of Health documents detail hospitalizations, a knife attack, harassment of hub staff
Nunavut’s isolation hubs have been heralded as enormously successful at keeping COVID-19 out of the territory, but internal Department of Health emails show officials have struggled to support vulnerable people during their two-week stays.
Incidents of violence and intoxication, as well as assault and harassment of hotel staff, are detailed in 177 pages of emails, memos, incident reports and other documents obtained by Nunatsiaq News from the territorial government’s Department of Health through access to information legislation. The documents range in date between Sept. 1 and Jan. 4.
“I have witnessed people struggling with withdrawal, and demonstrating anger when alcohol is restricted in any way,” stated one representative of Malti Consulting, whose name was redacted from the documents the GN provided, in late November.
Malti Consulting manages the majority of the department’s six isolation hubs, which are located in Edmonton, Yellowknife, Winnipeg and Ottawa.
The email details an increase in verbal, physical and sexual abuse and harassment at one of those hotels, in Ottawa.
In some cases, guests have ended up in hospital, according to the email, and some have had to be separated from each other for their own safety.
“Last night police were called when a guest was intent on harming another guest with a knife,” states the email.
“Fortunately, he dropped it by accident before he could do harm, and police were called. Make no mistake, we have been lucky something more serious has not occurred.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the territorial government has required anybody entering Nunavut to spend two weeks isolating in one of its hubs, with few exceptions.
CBC News recently did its own research into the toll these hubs have had on Nunavummiut, reporting in late March that hundreds of people struggled with the two-week isolation.
The government has accommodated more than 11,000 stays over the course of the past year, according to CBC.
No plan in place
Months into their operation, the Health Department still did not have a written protocol to help struggling guests, according to emails obtained by Nunatsiaq News.
“Substance abuse is an issue in the hubs,” wrote Ben Vera, who was a GN employee at the time, on Sept. 8.
“We are asking people who have drug and alcohol addictions to abstain for two weeks without any support and without a plan in place to deal with the fall-out.”
In October, a territorial government official spoke of the lack of protocol, instead offering a set of informal guidelines that included identifying a struggling or problematic individual whose behaviour would be discussed by higher-level isolation hub management. Then, the Health Department team would collaborate with hub staff to come up with a plan.
“This could be a break from isolation (severe) or Management Alcohol plan (moderate) or a check in with social work or mental health (low),” states Colby O’Donnell in the email.
According to communications staff with the Department of Health, a written protocol is now in place for situations like these.
Shoring up appropriate resources to deal with struggling guests has been a separate challenge.
An email from Sept. 15 describes how it’s been difficult for Department of Health staff to get mental health supports in place at the hubs.
“It’s taking a toll on the hub staff and … I am concerned how much longer they’d be able to handle all of this,” states the email, from an individual whose name has been redacted.
In December, Health Department staff were trying a different approach to mitigating violence at one of its Ottawa hubs – by making it dry.
One nursing consultant expressed concern about alcohol restrictions, arguing it could be dangerous for guests experiencing severe alcohol addiction.
In that email, Sarah MacRury stressed a managed alcohol program or detox would need to be in place for those individuals, and expressed frustration at her colleagues’ attitude towards the problem.
“Yes, that was me towards the end of the meeting complaining about the lack of acknowledgement of the addiction issue (oops, forgot to hit mute),” she states in her Dec. 2 email.
“I feel that the conversation that transpired was primarily about dealing with the GN’s ‘problem’ and less about supporting and managing the issues that the guests have – the perspective seemed a bit skewed.”
Two of the Health Department’s six isolation hubs are now designated medical hubs, which allows them to restrict alcohol – Best Western in Winnipeg and the Residence Inn in Ottawa.
The Health Department declined to make anybody available to interview for this story.
Evictions and banishment
Hub stays have taken a measurable toll on some Nunavummiut, who have struggled to complete their isolation.
As of April 29, 64 guests have been evicted from the hubs and some have been banned, according to the Department of Health.
The department would not provide a specific number for those who have been banned because that number is less than five.
When asked where evicted Nunavummiut go, spokesperson Chris Puglia stated in an email the government arranges a stay at alternative locations until they can re-enter the hub.
“For example, if there is a case of domestic assault, the perpetrator is then removed from the isolation until the other guest has returned home safely,” he stated.
A ‘horrendous’ situation
The rollout of the hubs without providing adequate support creates a “horrendous” situation for those in isolation, according to Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto.
“No government, whether it’s Nunavut or the feds or anybody, should be able to mandate [isolation] without ensuring the safety of the people involved,” he said.
“Quarantine, as we used to call it, is already ethically dubious because people are losing their rights without committing any sort of criminal offence. It becomes far less ethical if you isolate vulnerable people without any support … people could get hurt.”
People have been hurt while in isolation, confirms Danarae Sommerville, a spokesperson for the Department of Health.
She couldn’t say how many, though, because the territorial government doesn’t track that data.
She did, however, describe how the department responds when injury happens. A nurse will call 911 and notify the hub manager, and then tend to the injured person while wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment until the arrival of EMT.
An incident report for every injury is filled out and sent to the territorial government within 24 hours.
“The level of intervention needed will be determined on a case-by-case basis,” states Sommerville in the email.