Two Nunavut hamlets are asking visitors to stay away to help keep COVID-19 out of the remote communities with limited public health resources.
"The council is asking consultants or people coming in to do public meetings or meet with council to postpone their visits, just as a safety precaution," said Leonie Pameolik, senior administrative officer for Coral Harbour, on Southampton Island in northern Hudson Bay where about 1,000 people live.
In Cambridge Bay, home to about 2,000 people about halfway along the Northwest Passage on Victoria Island, mayor Pamela Gross has made a similar request.
"Consider postponing travel into and out of Cambridge Bay," she said in a statement released Thursday on Facebook.
To co-operate with the hamlet, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay has already told visiting researchers to stay home.
"It's not the right time to be bringing people to town," said David Scott, president of Polar Knowledge Canada, which runs the station.
"We made the decision quite easily. The CHARS campus is a welcomed feature in town and we want to maintain that welcoming relationship we enjoy."
Scott said it's a quiet time of year for the facility and only about eight researchers will have to reschedule their visits.
Cambridge Bay is also a popular stop for cruise ships and recreational sailors, as well a gateway to the central Arctic.
On Friday, Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced all cruise ship traffic in the Arctic would be banned. Cambridge Bay usually gets a half-dozen or so ships every season.
"Given the limited public health capacity in Canada’s northern communities, the cruise ship season for vessels with Canadian Arctic stops will be deferred for the entire season this year," said a government press release. "This would apply to cruise ships of all sizes."
The Nunavut government also cancelled all non-essential travel on Friday.
Experts have said Arctic communities are uniquely vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. People spend long periods of time indoors. Many houses are overcrowded and substandard to begin with.
"Once (an infection) arrives in a community it spreads really fast," said Andre Corriveau, former chief medical officer of health for the Northwest Territories.
Nunavut already suffers from the highest rates of infectious disease in Canada, from respiratory illnesses in newborns to full-blown tuberculosis.
Pameolik said novel coronavirus tests have to be sent to a lab in Winnipeg, which can take as long as two weeks to come back. Her community has no hospital, only a nursing station.
"We always have a shortage of nurses here," she said.
No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories or Yukon. Officials in all three territories say they're preparing adequate supplies of protective equipment and ensuring they have access to southern lab facilities for testing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2020
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press