COVID-19 levels high in Yellowknife's wastewater, but few new hospitalizations since restrictions lifted

·3 min read
N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green listens to a press conference on Sept. 8, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)
N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green listens to a press conference on Sept. 8, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Nearly a month after COVID-19 restrictions lifted across the N.W.T., levels of the virus in Yellowknife's wastewater have spiked dramatically — but so far that hasn't resulted in higher levels of hospitalizations.

Health Minister Julie Green joined CBC's Loren McGinnis on The Trailbreaker Thursday morning to talk about what her department is tracking with COVID-19 and what people can be doing to protect themselves if they are concerned about getting the virus.

Green said nearly every N.W.T. community is showing some level of COVID-19 in their wastewater, but especially in the capital.

"For Yellowknife, the signal is much, much higher — orders of magnitude higher than it has ever been since we started wastewater testing," she said.

The N.W.T. measures the concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater by looking at the average copies of the virus per millilitre. Data posted to the government's online COVID-19 dashboard shows levels in Yellowknife are more than three times higher than the last time they peaked in October, and increased sharply on April 11 from roughly 140 to 7,700.

Still, all levels within the territory are listed as anticipated, meaning they're in line with the known number of COVID-19 cases.

Green didn't have an exact figure for how many cases are requiring people to be hospitalized, but said numbers haven't changed greatly since restrictions lifted on April 1. A few more people have been admitted to ICU since then, for a total of 30 since the pandemic began, and one person has died.

"This is in line with what we saw leading up to the end of the public health emergency: there is a lot of COVID circulating in our communities, but it is mostly not a serious illness unless you are previously vulnerable by age or predetermined health conditions," she said.

Push for boosters

Green said the amount of people signing up to get their booster shots is lagging now, as interest has died down in getting vaccinated.

That's something her department is going to be looking at in the coming days.

"I get the sense now that there's almost a sense of fatalism around COVID — that people feel it's inevitable that they're going to get it," she noted.

"You're certainly more likely to get it ... because it's in such wide circulation, but at the same time, there are still things you can do to protect yourself from severe outcomes that would require hospitalization."

You've tested positive. Now what?

That's a question Green says she has been getting a lot. People no longer have to go to a testing centre or report the results by calling 811, unless they're in a higher risk group.

Instead, Green said people who test positive should take precautions — stay home, limit contact with others, wear masks and physically distance.

"The important change now is that this is a recommendation, so people can make other choices," she said.

"We don't recommend it because it means that the virus continues to circulate, but there is no enforcement of, 'You have COVID — you have to stay home.'"

For those who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, Green said the territory has received 200 courses of the antiviral treatment Paxlovid, which is now in health centres across the territory.

"If people are in one of the high-risk groups and have the confirmation test that they're positive for COVID, then they should ask their health centre about receiving Paxlovid," she said.

People who need information about COVID-19 can still call 811 on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., she added.

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