The Northwest Territories’ government has hired nearly 30 public health officers from different departments to be part of a new task force that will help enforce the chief public health officer’s orders concerning COVID-19. 

Conrad Baetz is the new deputy chief public health officer who will lead this team. Baetz has about 34 years experience as a public servant with the territorial and federal governments. 

He said most of that time was spent dealing with regulating — as a wildlife officer early on, to a land-use inspector, to the assistant deputy manager of operations for the territory’s Department of Lands. 

According to the territorial government on Wednesday, there have been 180 complaints made so far to the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer regarding people who aren’t complying to COVID-19 protocols.

Baetz spoke with CBC’s The Trailbreaker host Loren McGinnis Thursday about the new task force and its authority.

What can public health officers do if someone isn’t following the mandatory 14-day self-isolation order?

Baetz said there’s a step-by-step process to deal with any complaint, including against someone who isn’t following the order.

In any case, a public health officer will:

Verify the complaint. Speak with public health officials who will help assess the risk to the public. Loop in the regional team of public health officers, with the information going to a team lead. That person will be responsible for co-ordinating the other officers in the region. Officers will respond accordingly.

Baetz said if there’s a need to, a public health officer can travel from regional centres like Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik or Fort Smith to a small community to further investigate.

What can the public health officers do specifically about partying?

Baetz said this also comes down to determining the risk to the public.

Ultimately, the officers’ authority is under the Public Health Act and the public health emergency, which includes chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola’s legally binding orders.

A file photo of Conrad Baetz, the territory’s new deputy chief public health officer. (Submitted by N.W.T. government)

Although highly recommended, social gatherings like parties have not been ordered to stop, though Kandola said Wednesday that she expects that to change in the coming weeks.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean to go in and bust up parties in that respect,” Baetz said. “But certainly there might be some kind of requirement to sit back and monitor or some kind of requirement to try and reach out to the individual that might own the household and let them know that this is not the right thing to do.”.

Baetz said if it’s determined that a party or social gathering needs to come to an end, the public health officers could call upon the RCMP. 

Will the public health officers halt community checkstops?

Some communities in the Northwest Territories have created checkstops. 

Earlier this week, Premier Caroline Cochrane asked communities to stop doing this because she said it wouldn’t stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

But this isn’t something public health officers can easily enforce. 

“When it comes to checkstops on highways, those are more for other authorities that exist within the [N.W.T. government].”

Baetz does hope though, that with the task force in place, the visibility of the public health officers means “people will become more comfortable with the work that the [N.W.T. government] is doing” and things like checkstops won’t feel necessary. 

How will the task force make sure communities trust its work?

Baetz said the territorial government has been meeting regularly with the Northwest Territories Association of Communities, a non-profit organization that represents all 33 communities in the territory. 

He said it’s also been meeting with Indigenous leaders.

“It’s having dialogue and making sure we understand what their concerns are where we can appease those concerns to the best of our ability with the resources that we have,” Baetz said.

He said the amount of people now in charge of enforcement should change how things are dealt with. 

“We’re going to be able to react far quicker to somebody that might complain about somebody that hasn’t self-isolated in the community that they’re supposed to.”

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