My Two Weeks At One Of Nunavut’s Ottawa Isolation Hubs

Falafels, renovation TV shows and a COVID-19 scare. How we moved across the country during a pandemic.

After a 15-hour drive from New Brunswick, with five suitcases, six tote bags, two cats in carriers, and a big sack of litter, we arrived at Ottawa’s Hilton Homewood Suites in the early evening of November 18, ready for two weeks of mandatory quarantine before our scheduled flight to Iqaluit, Nunavut. We were of course, told to use the word โ€œisolationโ€ while in the hotel just in case we were within earshot of special guests or the particularly squeamish. But I prefer โ€œquarantine.”

Once we’d make it through those 14 days, Canada’s youngest northern territory would soon be our new home. It was also, recently, our old home.

We had spent nine months living in New Brunswick for my husband’s cross training to become an air traffic controller. Last year, when he applied for the promotion and work transfer through his employer Nav Canada, no one could foresee that the aviation industry would be hit with the blows of an international pandemic throughout 2020. Our first move of the year, from the Arctic to the East Coast, was planned for March โ€“ right at the start of the first lockdowns in Canada.

By July and August, we had settled into our new Atlantic home, but we could tell the novel coronavirus was not going away any time soon. We had a strong hunch that the consequences it had caused in the aviation industry would likely mean his training or the new position he was training for could be cut at any time and it left us with an uneasiness and difficulty making virtually any plans in 2020.

In September, we got the news. David’s training was cancelled and virtually no trainings at Nav Canada (the only organization which trains and employs air traffic controllers in the country) would be scheduled for at least a few years. Hundreds of employees across Canada had lost their training positions and/or their jobs in that first wave of layoffs. We would have to head back to his original flight services specialist position in Iqaluit until the aviation industry picks up and Nav Canada might start offering training opportunities again.

We scrambled to arrange truck storage for the winter since Nunavut currently has an embargo on flying up vehicles. Any storage businesses we contacted near Moncton were already booked for the winter by then so we opted to leave it in storage in Quebec, near David’s father’s home. That would mean we would need to drive over two provincial borders during the highest spikes in novel coronavirus cases since March.

A fortunate element of this plan was that we could meet his parents at the garage when we left the truck – to say goodbye again for another few years. We chatted and exchanged Christmas gifts, knowing it would be a long time before we would see each other again. While David and his father went to get a car rental, his mother and I caught up sitting side-by-side inside our truck โ€“ wearing masks, of course.

By the time we arrived in Ottawa on Wednesday night, it was nearing 6 p.m. We had been driving since 3 a.m. During the drive, our sick cat had pooped on my sweat pants, but, besides that, there were no real issues. We didn’t know that there would be a long waiting and processing period before we got to the hotel room. We had rented a vehicle since we could not bring our own with us to Nunavut so David had to leave after checking us in at the front desk to return the rental. I was led with all of our luggage and cats to a side room where people taking part in Nunavut’s quarantine program fill out forms to be processed.

I waited a little over half an hour for him to return the rental, hungry and tired, and so very thirsty. Just a few other people were being processed when we were and there were a few hub staffers working nearby. Everyone coming in had pets. Which is a good thing. We had heard that Nunavut had originally not allowed pets in the isolation hubs, so anyone flying in to Nunavut would need to leave their animals alone in a kennel for two weeks before flying back North. We were fortunate to move in when they had changed that policy since one of our cats was on medications she needed a few times a day and was in poor health. I honestly believe she would have not survived if we had to leave her in a kennel for two weeks without us.

To keep myself from falling asleep while waiting for David -before we could be processed, get interviewed by a nurse and receive a tour of the quarantine section of the hotel – I started filling out our paperwork for both of us, including a thick pile of stapled papers which allowed us to choose our dinners for the next 14 days.

We knew that meals would be provided but wondered if, as vegetarians, there would be adequate options. We were pleased to see that most of the meal options each day had a vegan version we could select. The only thing is that, for the most part, the vegan version was just falafel. Besides spaghetti, pizza, a burger or a salad, the remaining five veganized meals were some variation of falafel. In my fatigued stupor, I selected for the first few days different falafel dishes, not realizing those other traditionally-non-vegan options could also be made vegan.

At first, I was excited by this. I love falafels โ€“ or I did. And I loved them the first four days. By the fifth day, I just could not. I would gag any time I smelled dinner arrive. Of course my palette is pretty specific and my dietary restrictions are not that common (plus I gag easily at fried or fatty foods โ€“ any time I open a bag of cat food, I have to stop breathing or I vomit) but this is my honest experience. Maybe any other vegetarian or vegan travellers heading up to Nunavut from Ottawa or anyone with other dietary restrictions, would want to know this in advance.

For instance, we did end up getting some non-vegetarian meals accidentally a few times. And one time something was labelled as vegan but it came with Kraft Caesar salad dressing and a creamy soup. I wish we had brought more of our groceries with us. We almost did but had opted not to in order to minimize our space requirements. We ordered a lot of delivery for dinner after that first week. More on this later.

The breakfasts and lunches, however, were amazing. In the morning, we would get either oatmeal with raisins and cinnamon with fruit, or scrambled tofu and rice, or breakfast quinoa and potatoes. We often got a fresh, “homemade” granola bar. At lunchtime, we got delicious rice, quinoa or salads. They were all quite yummy.

Once David came back from dropping off the car, we met with nurses who asked us the typical COVID-19 questions, took our temperatures, and explained more policies to us in detail.

Report any developing symptoms.

Only leave your room with authorization from security.

If you break quarantine you have to restart it.

We also learned that we would get a phone call each day from Public Health to check in on our physical and mental health. While we would be allowed to walk outside when ever we wanted to, it would be just on a patio downstairs, or we could pace from one part of a sidewalk to another with security guards watching us at all times. We would be unable to leave the eighth floor of the hotel without a security guard tracking us. And we would not be allowed to leave the hotel at all unless it was for a COVID-19 test or an emergency.

To be honest, after the chaos of preparing and calculating the complicated logistics of our second cross-country move of the year, we were looking forward to the slight โ€œvacationโ€ of kicking back and resting in the hotel for two weeks. And after that long drive, and very early morning, we were ready to flop down on the bed and fall asleep.

When we got to the hotel room, we were surprised to see it was bigger than we had anticipated. It was technically a โ€œsuiteโ€ since there was a kitchen and dining area, a couch and desk corner. The decor was modern and sleek, the window was large and the bed was a king. The pillows were divine. While the bathroom was on the tiny side, the fixtures were minimal and sophisticated. It was all clean and neat when we arrived โ€“ welcoming.

But then, the next morning, I woke up with a headache and a sore throat.

I wondered about the coronavirus. We had stopped at nearly a dozen gas stations and their washrooms during our long drive through New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. It had been a big fear of mine throughout the weeks leading up to our move โ€“ would we be able to drive through three provinces during the growing surge of the coronovirus’ second wave? I chalked my symptoms up to stress or allergies and thought if my head and face still felt like that the next day, I’d tell the nurse.

The next day, two days into the isolation period, David’s mom texted us to say that she had woken up with no sense of smell. She then tested positive for COVID-19. We remembered that we had been near her at the garage. For the most part, we had stayed six feet apart from each other, but at one point she and I had sat in the truck together to stay warm while David went to get the rental car with his father. Once she got out, I sat in the truck for a while with my mask off.

I couldn’t remember if she had touched the steering wheel or anything else I’d be in contact with, but for a good half hour, her face (masked) was about two feet away from mine (also masked.) I also couldn’t remember if there were moments where I might have leaned toward her laughing, or if she was wearing gloves, or if she ever coughed or sneezed. So, as soon as we learned of her symptoms and diagnosis, we called the nurse helpline number that the hub had provided to us with our information package.

The nurse wanted us to get tested right away, so she booked us a test appointment immediately. When we went downstairs for the quickly-booked appointment, the nurse explained to us the logistics and processes of getting tested and when we would receive the results, and had us fill out a disclaimer that would allow them to see our medical results. I asked her if this would be the only COVID test we would get during our stay in the isolation hub or if we would be tested again before going to the airport.

The nurse said that we would just get the one test. I was concerned that we had only seen David’s mother just less than three days earlier so it didn’t seem likely that if we were indeed infected from that meeting with her that a test would catch it so soon. I had read many articles about how it can take more than five days for tests to detect coronavirus.

It was nice to get fresh air but scary to be out near people in a province with much higher daily COVID numbers than the Atlantic provinces had in total since the spring.

We debated about this a bit but the nurse insisted we go right away. She called us a cab, paid for by the Government of Nunavut account (which can be read from the taxi screen), and explained that once we were done the test we should call the hub so she could book another one to come get us.

When we arrived at the arena that was hosting the test site, we waited in line behind other families, outside and under a tent. It was a cool but sunny day with snow piles around us. It was nice to get fresh air but scary to be out near people in a province with much higher daily COVID numbers than the Atlantic provinces had in total since the spring.

When we made it to the front of the line, we explained our situation to two staff who gave us hand sanitizer and asked us to replace our cloth masks with their medical masks. At the door, however, when we explained our situation again, the nurse screening people upon entrance explained that we could not get tested that day โ€“ it was too soon. We explained we had an appointment booked but, still, she said it must have been a mistake. She advised us to tell the isolation hub nurse to book another appointment in at least two days because a minimum of five days after exposure is the official rule in Ottawa.

The hub nurse we had been working with was surprised by this rule though. She said she had never heard that there were time limitations around the testing. When I asked the Government of Nunavut’s Health Department about this, a spokesperson replied by email that โ€œeach of the hubs is expected to follow the local jurisdictions public health measure (sic) and policies in all respects, including testing.โ€

The Department of Health also said that only those who are symptomatic in that isolation hub are tested for COVID-19 but that they are โ€œcurrently exploring a testing program in the Ottawa isolation hubs, which will provide asymptomatic testing at appropriate intervals to coincide with isolation.โ€

A similar rapid testing program for those without symptoms began in the Winnipeg isolation hubs last week, according to Nunavut’s Department of Health. This is good news, in my opinion, since, so far, the only cases that have been known to enter Nunavut since the travel restrictions were placed were found to have originated at the Winnipeg isolation hub.

It is uncertain if we will ever know exactly what happened, other than the first cases had all passed through the hub.โ€

Nunavut’s Department of Health

The Health Department says it is still investigating how exactly the first cases made its way to the territory. It will share the conclusions when the review is complete, the spokesperson says. However, they add: โ€œIt is uncertain if we will ever know exactly what happened, other than the first cases had all passed through the hub.โ€

The Health Department also noted that 14 days of isolation is not a 100 per cent guarantee of remaining coronavirus-free. Symptoms can arise at a wide variety of time periods and occasionally, a case can slip through the cracks no matter how hard you try. There are asymptomatic carriers, of course.

โ€œA small percentage of infections will slip through an isolation set up like this,โ€ wrote the Nunavut Health department’s spokesperson. โ€œFor eight months, it has worked and for eight months it’s helped us to keep this virus out.โ€

So, we returned to the hotel to continue our quarantine until we would try again to be tested that Monday. Of course it was a bit nerve-wracking because we did not know if we had a deadly virus. I stayed in bed, propped up by those amazing pillows, and planned my website’s re-branding, did coursework and watched TV.

Still, those two days of uncertainty were so stressful to me, that I would crash into a deep, forceful sleep by 6 p.m. During the day, I would doomscroll over news articles that mentioned unusual COVID symptoms or otherwise statistically-improbable cases. Maybe I had a general head cold at the time and its symptom was deep fatigue. Or maybe my body manages stress highly efficiently in moments I need to be productive up until the point where it has piled up to its maximum storage and my immune system just gives out when it is finally safe to rest.

I slept nearly 14 hours both nights. It could have just been those excellent pillows! However, by the time our second test was scheduled, my symptoms had lifted.

If you have not yet been tested for coronavirus, let me explain to you what it feels like.

I had seen many videos and photos of the process online. In most of those cases, it seemed really unpleasant and like a rough, deep, painful jab. However, I found the nurse who tested me quite gentle. She answered my questions patiently and thoroughly. She even showed me how deep the swab would be inserted before popping it in. It was not nearly as uncomfortable as I was expecting, and I would say there was no pain, just a kind of tickle deep down in part of the nostril you never really feel otherwise. The place under your eye sockets that burns a bit when you get water up your nose while swimming. It didn’t burn though – just made me feel like I needed to sneeze.

I kept refreshing, anxiously.

Since I had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive and David had not been in such close proximity to his mother as I had, my COVID-19 test was marked as priority and I was told that I would get the results on the public health app within 24 hours. David’s was supposed to come in after mine.

Over the next day, we kept refreshing the app and checking our emails to see if we had gotten the results. At the end of day Tuesday, David’s results came in as negative.

Mine did not come in that day.

Or all that night. I kept refreshing, anxiously.

By Wednesday morning, though, I did get my results โ€“ also negative. It was an enormous relief!

We did clay face masks to celebrate our health.

Another notable hiccup during our stay at Nunavut’s Ottawa isolation hub was on our second or third night when the hotel kitchen forgot about feeding the entire eighth floor their dinner. We were supposed to get three meals a day at set times left by our door. More than two hours after the dinner was scheduled to arrive, we got a phone call from a hotel staff member who said there had been a โ€œclerical errorโ€ and wanted to know if we had received dinner.

We told them no but no worries. They assured us that they would prepare it as fast as possible and send it to us โ€œright away.โ€ At this point, we thought it was just our own room that was forgotten and it was no big deal โ€“ it was only around 7:30 p.m. by then. We waited another hour. Our stomachs grumbled. But then a second hour passed. We got cranky. Typically, dinner was provided around 5 p.m. – well over four hours earlier.

I stepped out into the hallway to ask the security guard if he knew what was going on with our dinners (was it forgotten again somehow?) He seemed to not know. He seemed to also not even know that we had not received a dinner. When a man quarantining in another room on our floor heard my voice in the hall, he popped his head out the door and said, โ€œYou haven’t received yours either?โ€

Another person had their head out the door across the hall from him.

It turned out the whole floor had not gotten their dinner. It was well past 9 p.m.

I could only imagine how uncomfortable that would be for families with children, or seniors with a schedule for medication requiring food, or someone with any of many health conditions impacted by eating routines.

We decided we would call the kitchen again to check what was up and if we didn’t get it within another half hour we would just order from a restaurant. We did end up getting dinner by 10 p.m. But of course because of the haste, they made us a chicken meal, without looking at the vegetarian notes on our papers I had filled out that first night.

When the man who delivered us food was handing them out, he looked flustered and rushed, shaking. I almost didn’t say anything about the wrong chicken because, hey, I’ve worked in service before and he looked quite upset.

“Is it real chicken?” I asked, as I opened the container that was clearly steaming hot chicken. He said yes and asked me if something was wrong.

โ€œOh, um, well, it was supposed to be vegan… but it’s OK, we were just thinking of ordering food so we’ll just…. call a restaurant,โ€ I said.

He apologized profusely, explained it was a mess of a night, or something along those lines, and took back the chicken, promising me that he would fix up a vegan dinner as soon as possible.

A short time later, there was a knock on the door. The usual sign of dinner delivered to our door. I reached for it, excitedly, aching to eat. I popped open the lid and saw more falafel. I ate it โ€“ but sadly.

All food and COVID-testing issues aside, it was a pretty fine hotel stay.

Sure, it would have been cool if they had supplied the rooms with cleaning products or a broom, so we could keep it clean during those two weeks. Now that the Government of Nunavut is allowing pets, it would be wise to provide a broom, so cat litter can be swept up and not left to pile around the litter box over 14 days.

It might also be smart to start the stay off with more than two of each utensil, so you can run the dishwasher less and not waste water.

But it was a pretty environment. Our bedding was clean. The furniture was great. The breakfasts and lunches were lovely. It was warm. We were given so many free water bottles. Additionally, we got lots of phone calls from people in public health asking us how we were feeling, which was validating. By the end, I felt thoroughly cared for by people I had never met.

I also just won’t advise you to pack minimally for your stay. We thought that since we could do laundry at the hotel -two loads for free- we didn’t need to pack more than five to seven outfits. The problem with that is that the laundry loads are very small. You have to pack it into a small plastic bag. If it takes up two small plastic bags, those are your two free loads. And, I don’t know if this is the usual experience โ€“ I could just be unlucky โ€“ but one of my newest and most favourite shirts got lost in the laundry process.

We counted up all the pieces, and the number we had written on the card under โ€œShirtsโ€ was correct. We soon found I had just received someone else’s t-shirt instead of my own cardigan. So, we had to call room service and let them know my shirt was missing and I had gotten the wrong shirt. Which was weird because it was white and in a bag of white clothing while the tshirt I received was dark grey. So, were they washed together? Fortunately, they were able to find my shirt within half an hour and I got it back. The sad part, though, is it had gotten damaged somehow in the process, and when I opened the bag they gave it to me in, there was an inch-and-a-half-long rip down the shoulder.

If you can fit 14 outfits into your luggage, it might be best for your Nunavut isolation hub stay in Ottawa. Maybe also bring your not-newest clothes. Or just wear PJs every day. If I could turn back time, I would have packed differently.

As discomforts go during a global pandemic, I’d say many other people are living with deeper agonies than too many falafels, eating dinner nearly five hours late, wasting time going out in high-risk public places for a COVID test you can’t take, and having your newest, favourite shirt rip in the laundry. The isolation hubs are a great idea to keep the territory safe. As a new concept, of course it will be imperfect. However, some fine-tuning could make what will likely be a scary, uncomfortable experience (quarantine, flying during a pandemic, possibly โ€“ like in our case โ€“ moving across the country during a dangerous time) just a little bit more cozy or personal.

It’s not a vacation, that’s for sure, but we all want to feel like we have some semblance of control over our lives in this weird time, to not feel like just a statistic, and, most of all, to not be forgotten.

I’m pleased to see that Nunavut will also be offering rapid testing to asymptomatic people, currently in Winnipeg and, in the future, in Ottawa. Looking back, I can see some spots where there was potential for cracks a virus could peek through. As well, being tested closer to the flight time (and testing everyone, regardless of symptoms) seems to me to be the safest approach to reducing Nunavut’s COVID-19 numbers and then keeping it at the ideal zero.

Our stay at Nunavut’s Ottawa isolation hub was certainly not without its comforts. Did I mention the pillows were lovely? During those 14 days, we watched more TV than we have in years. I would say we watched hundreds of HGTV home renovation shows. Like 17 hours a day, every day. By now, we are basically experts on backsplashes. Ask me which walls you should demolish to open up your space and I’ll tell you. Just please, please, please don’t bring another falafel near me.


All photo credits: Courtney Edgar