CPHO suspects more Omicron cases already in the N.W.T.

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N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola urges residents to lay low for 72 hours after returning the N.W.T. The goal is to lessen the impact on the health system by 'not having everyone get sick all at once.' (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)
N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola urges residents to lay low for 72 hours after returning the N.W.T. The goal is to lessen the impact on the health system by 'not having everyone get sick all at once.' (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)

The chief public health officer of the Northwest Territories suspects there's already more than just the one confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the territory.

On Thursday, Dr. Kami Kandola said most of the 26 active cases in the N.W.T. came from people travelling into the territory and her office has reason to believe these include the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

"Because of the areas that people are coming from, and the type of symptoms, and how rapid it's transmitted among their contacts, I would say it's likely Omicron," Kandola said.

She cautioned these cases weren't yet confirmed to be the Omicron variant, as tests needed to be sent to Alberta for sequencing first.

On Dec. 19, Kandola's office confirmed one case of the highly transmissible variant in the N.W.T.

Of the 26 active cases on Thursday, 21 were in Yellowknife and five were located in the Beaufort Delta.

"Most of them are imported, and the people who are getting COVID that haven't travelled are getting it from people who have travelled," she said.

But Kandola also said there has been a cluster of cases that spread at a workplace.

On Thursday evening, a public exposure notice for a "workplace/institution outbreak site" was issued for the Canadian North Office and Hangar in Yellowknife, between Dec. 17 and 23.

CBC News
CBC News

Kandola asked N.W.T. residents to continually check the territorial government's COVID-19 website for updates and new public exposure notifications, "because we've had quite a few exposures in stores and restaurants," she said.

Lay low for 72 hours after arriving in N.W.T.: Kandola

The Omicron variant is quickly becoming the dominant strain of the COVID-19 virus in Canada, in the lead-up to the holiday season.

"We do know that Omicron seems to have a shorter incubation period than Delta, so by and large most people become symptomatic within the first three to four days," said Kandola. The Delta variant was the strain behind earlier COVID-19 outbreaks this fall in the Sahtu region and the Beaufort Delta this winter.

"We literally have thousands of people coming in, so we knew that Omicron would be introduced," said Kandola. "Where we're seeing Omicron introduction is from travelers traveling back into N.W.T. for family reunification or for work purposes."

Kandola's office has recommended people limit their interactions with others during their first 72 hours in the territory. That means restricting contact with other households and avoiding large gatherings.

"Before this becomes a community-wide transmission, we're really, really urging individuals ... to limit your contacts for the first 72 hours," she said.

"What that means is please don't go to parties, don't go to the gym, avoid high-risk activities like hockey, going to the cinema, going to church for the first 72 hours," she said. "It's just the first 72 hours."

This is necessary to "pick up the bulk of any exposures and possible people harbouring the virus in the first three days, assuming that they were infected the day before they left," she said. "It will slow the number of contacts that they will pass this virus on to, and buy us some time."

If you test negative after 72 hours and don't show any symptoms, you can "ease up," she said, but you still must follow the general public health orders that are in place.

Test upon arrival

When travellers land at airports in Yellowknife or Inuvik, they will now be given a pack of five rapid-response tests.

Kandola said people should test themselves upon returning from travel outside the N.W.T. and again at the 72-hour mark. If they test positive, they must follow self-isolation rules.

Kandola said the tests aren't perfect. "Sometimes the tests can be negative but the viral load is really small and you might not pick it up," she said. "That doesn't mean you go out and break all public health rules — socialize in crowded settings, not wearing masks, do high-risk activities."

If you exhibit symptoms, you should still stay home and book a test with public health, she said, noting Omicron presents slightly different from the Delta variant. "Omicron is presenting more like a common cold," she said. Symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, fatigue, headache and sore throat.

"If people can follow those basic recommendations, we could contain as much as possible the Omicron introduction, and its spread among our N.W.T. residents," she said.

Kandola identified the current moment — with students and family returning home to the N.W.T. for the holidays — and early January, when residents return to the territory from southern holidays as "high-risk" periods.

She said the government expects to have enough tests for every traveller anticipated to arrive in the territory.

'We need to keep each other's spirits up'

"We're all living through this. It's been 21 months," said Kandola. "We need to keep each other's spirits up and get through together."

"I know people have done all the right things: people are fully vaccinated, people are getting the booster," she said. "This is just one more phase of the pandemic that we'll get through together, but we'll get through it."

"We look at where we were this Christmas compared to last Christmas and society has considerably less restrictions compared to last year," she said.

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