Reflection: How public health caught COVID-19 lurking in Arviat
Stories we loved to tell: Nunatsiaq News editor Randi Beers reflects on one of her favourite assignments of 2021
This article is one in a series in which Nunatsiaq News journalists reflect on a story from 2021 that they loved to tell.
Arviat has come a long way since last year.
In December 2020, the community was in the middle of the worst outbreak Nunavut has seen during the pandemic.
By the time restrictions finally eased in spring after a six-month lockdown, 339 positive cases had been discovered among the community’s roughly 2,500 residents. All but one would recover.
The Nunatsiaq News team followed government updates — a vaccine was on the horizon and the Delta variant was beginning to pop up around the world. A lot was going on, and any chance to ask chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson questions couldn’t be put to waste.
In January, a small detail caught my ear: Public health was reporting 18 cases in Arviat, and they were all asymptomatic.
It was a hint at what was going on behind the scenes, a whiff of the giant public-health investigative machine that has been operating in every jurisdiction of the world since the beginning of the pandemic.
It was common knowledge by then that COVID-19 is communicable between asymptomatic people, making masks, isolation, bubbles, contact tracing and screening a part of our lives.
So I wanted to know, what were public-health officials doing in Arviat to root out the virus?
I also wanted to get an idea of what life was like in Arviat at the time. We had to rely on the people who live there who were willing to tell us what’s going on.
Enter Arviat mother of nine Nataasha Komakjuak, who told me all about her family. Her teenage son was one of the first people to test positive for COVID-19 in the community — and he was also asymptomatic.
My conversation with Komakjuak gave me a window into how isolation works when a family of nine shares a three-bedroom home.
She told me about her son, who was nine-months old at the time, getting tested for COVID. She told me about leaving her debit card outside her door with a shopping list, so friends and family could pick up necessities for her. She told me about her children jumping up and down every night when “Jo-jo” (their affectionate term for Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr.) did his nightly COVID updates. She told me about how her family was persevering through the challenges and how she believed her community would get through the outbreak because they were strong. And now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that’s exactly what happened.
I also had the opportunity to speak to Patterson, who gave me a sense of how public health tries to outsmart the virus that causes COVID-19.
He described for me what officials found when they first arrived in Arviat — by then the virus had spread “far and had spread fairly fast,” he said, compared to later on during the outbreak, when public measures dampened spread.
He also described the challenges of tracking COVID-19; namely, getting people to submit to the uncomfortable nasal swab test. Taking a test for contract tracing purposes was not mandatory, and some people were repeatedly potential contacts.
“It’s not something everybody wants to do again if there’s no need,” said Patterson at the time.
By now, one might be hard pressed to find somebody who hasn’t endured the COVID nasal swab, just like it’s impossible to find anybody out there who hasn’t been personally affected by the pandemic itself.
After two years, COVID-19 has become the story of our lives. And nobody can say what the new year will bring as the disease makes another resurgence across the territory.
So being able to pick up the phone and get a sense of how Nunavut’s most impacted community to date was able to beat an outbreak — that’s a story I love to tell.