Health officials in the N.W.T. say they expected the Omicron wave of COVID-19 to peak around Jan. 26, but the territory is already starting to see cases decline in many communities, though hospitalizations are rising.
The N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, and Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, took questions from the public on The Trailbreaker Thursday morning.
Kandola said the territory was seeing about 180 new cases of the virus a day in mid-January, but that's dropping to about 140 cases a day now. She expects there will still be about 100 new cases a day going into February.
The territory also saw an increase in severe outcomes in the past week. Kandola said nine people have now been hospitalized during the Omicron wave of COVID-19, while one has been admitted to the ICU. The territory also recorded another COVID-related death, for a total of 13.
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The phone-in came as the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO) has extended some COVID-19 restrictions, and loosened others.
On Tuesday, the OCPHO extended a public health order on gathering restrictions across the territory to Jan 30.
The original Jan. 4 order limits household gatherings to 10 people, with no more than five non-household members, and restricts the number of patrons at tables in restaurants, bars and lounges to six — with no visiting between tables.
It also limits high-risk indoor activities, including singing, dancing, playing wind and brass instruments, hand games, fitness classes, contact sports and swimming.
At the same time, children in most communities that saw school closures will return to in-school learning by Jan. 24.
However, that's not the case in Fort Smith and Inuvik where the OCPHO has advised there is community spread, and a significant increase in case counts.
Return to school
Kandola said the territory made the decision to have schools reopen on Jan. 24 because it's in the best interest of children.
She pointed to other provinces and territories such as B.C., Yukon and Ontario that have made similar decisions.
She said her office weighed the harms and benefits of keeping schools closed, and ultimately decided the dangers of Omicron — which she noted has less severe outcomes than the Delta variant — didn't outweigh the importance of in-person learning.
"This is not the Delta wave — this is the Omicron wave. It's safe to move forward at this point," she said, though the territory will keep monitoring the situation.
"We are only going to move kids who are unvaccinated to home-based learning if we see transmission in the classes."
Pfizer's newly approved antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 infections, Paxlovid, will be coming to the N.W.T., though Pegg said she doesn't want to say how much the territory is receiving until it arrives.
She said the pill will be available throughout the territory depending on patients' risk of becoming severely ill. The drug works by attacking the replication of the virus, she noted — with less of the virus in their body, patients are less likely to be severely ill.
"It's not a miracle pill. It reduces the risk of hospitalization and death in studies where people were taking it," she said.
"Certainly the best way would be to prevent people from getting sick in the first place."
Pegg and Kandola took a couple questions about COVID-19 numbers in specific communities, including why the territory's numbers for Fort Providence are lower than the numbers provided by that community's health centre.
The territory currently reports regional COVID-19 numbers every day, and community-specific numbers once per week.
Kandola said that's so her staff have time to go through the data and validate cases or remove duplicate cases.
"The discrepancy [in numbers] is the validation process," she said.
Eighty-four per cent of eligible N.W.T. residents have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine now, and 77 per cent are fully immunized.
The territory recently announced children between the ages of five and 11 can start receiving their second dose, as long as it's been seven or eight weeks since their first dose.
"We have opened that up for kids if they're at eight weeks, or just about at eight weeks, so seven weeks," Pegg said.
Pegg said the territory is also awaiting information on booster shots for some teens — a discussion that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization was having this week. Though that committee is discussing boosters for youth between the ages of 12 and 17, the N.W.T. already went ahead with offering boosters to 16- and 17-year-olds.
"We are expecting a recommendation on booster doses for [teens aged] 12 to 15 in the coming days," Pegg said.
As for children under the age of five, Kandola said vaccines likely won't be coming until the spring since Pfizer is still conducting trials.