N.W.T. health officials answer questions on eased restrictions and plans for students

·5 min read
Terriorial medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, left, and N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola answered questions live on The Trailbreaker Thursday. (CBC - image credit)
Terriorial medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, left, and N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola answered questions live on The Trailbreaker Thursday. (CBC - image credit)

Eased public health restrictions in the N.W.T. could be coming as soon as May, but communities with high vaccine uptake are unlikely to be rewarded.

That was the response from health officials during The Trailbreaker's weekly COVID-19 call-in show on CBC Radio One.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola and the territory's medical director, Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, took questions from listeners over the course of an hour.

The N.W.T. currently has no active cases of COVID-19, and just 47 residents have contracted the disease. More than 23,000 people have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 14,000 are fully immunized.

But officials struck a cautionary note about eased travel restrictions and the risk posed by new variants, and suggested that vaccine uptake was not nearly so high as it should be.

Here's some of what they talked about.

How is the vaccine campaign going?

After an initial glut of vaccinations as clinics opened in Yellowknife and other major centres, the rate of vaccine uptake has now slowed, Pegg said.

"Our uptake has been a bit low in the younger population," she said. "We are lucky to not have a lot of COVID[-19] here … but I think that's also made us less worried about COVID[-19] than perhaps some people in other jurisdictions have been."

Pegg said vaccine uptake has slowed and is low among younger residents.
Pegg said vaccine uptake has slowed and is low among younger residents.(Andrew Vaughan-Pool/The Canadian Press)

However, Pegg said the next 10-day stretch "is going to be a busy one" as vaccination teams prepare for a third round of visits to smaller communities.

Kandola said about half of eligible adults are currently vaccinated. But when asked which communities have had low uptake so far, she couldn't provide an answer.

"Right now we're in the process of looking at regional rates, and that is being validated and we will release that," she said. "But at this point we can't release any community information because we are gathering that information."

Can communities with high vaccination rates relax restrictions?

Kandola ruled out relaxing rules for communities with high vaccine uptake, like Ulukhaktok, where the mayor estimated 95 per cent of eligible adults got the jab.

Though Kandola plans to ease some restrictions across the territory by the end of this month, she said "these new public health restrictions will apply to the entire territory."

"It will be difficult to go to community by community and say, this community gets to relax and this doesn't," she said.

So instead of promising a reward for communities with high uptake, Kandola offered a warning to those places where vaccination is lagging.

"They'll just have a higher risk if a variant is introduced, and they'll be more likely to be put back into lockdown," she said.

A passenger sits at the Calgary Airport on Oct. 30. Kandola said she's looking into shorter quarantine periods for vaccinated individuals.
A passenger sits at the Calgary Airport on Oct. 30. Kandola said she's looking into shorter quarantine periods for vaccinated individuals.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Can people who are vaccinated self-isolate for a shorter period after travel?

There is slightly more hope for vaccinated residents returning from travel who are turned off by the mandatory 14-day isolation period.

Kandola said her team is currently modelling what a shorter period of isolation for vaccinated individuals might look like.

"What we have to look for is the risk of introduction of COVID[-19], because we have a lot of people travelling from places with variants," she said.

With larger gatherings under eased restrictions, the risk a single rogue case can pose increases, which means a shorter isolation period needs to be carefully considered.

But border restrictions are not going away until the rest of Canada has seen a higher rate of vaccination, she said — though that may be as early as the end of June, according to federal vaccination estimates.

When can students get the vaccine?

The start of summer for university students is just a couple months away, but many studying at southern schools won't have been made eligible for the vaccine by then.

Kandola said the territory has stockpiled doses of the vaccine to provide to students when they return.

"Rest assured we will vaccinate you," she said.

But in the territory's high schools, students will need to wait a little longer for their dose of the vaccine.

That's because the jury is still out on whether the vaccine is safe for those under 18.

Students head back to class at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife in August. Kandola said she's talking with education officials about whether public health restrictions will need to remain in place for the rest of the school year.
Students head back to class at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife in August. Kandola said she's talking with education officials about whether public health restrictions will need to remain in place for the rest of the school year.(Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Kandola said there's currently a study testing the Moderna vaccine on 3,000 people aged 12 to 17. When the results of that study are in, Health Canada will review it and decide whether to approve the vaccine for kids.

But since that will take some time, high school students could see out the school year under pandemic restrictions — even as other territories lift their own restrictions on schools.

"We have a higher importation risk" than Whitehorse, where students have been returned to classes full-time, she said.

"The school population [is] … a very unimmunized, congregant population," she said.

That doesn't mean it's a certainty, however — Kandola said she's meeting with school boards and the education department to decide on the plan for the rest of the year.

Can those who have been vaccinated still transmit COVID-19?

One listener asked how long it might be until the verdict is in on whether the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine can prevent transmission of COVID-19.

That's been one reason Kandola has frequently offered for why restrictions have remained in place even as vaccination rates increase. Right now, the available science only indicates that it helps prevent severe cases of COVID-19.

Kandola said there is "real-world data" emerging from vaccination campaigns in Israel and the U.S. that shows reductions in transmission rates as high as 90 per cent. But that data hasn't been peer reviewed yet.

"It's promising, but it hasn't led to any policy changes," she said. "But I am looking at that data in more detail when it comes to the N.W.T."

"We are doing some modelling internally to say, 'what would that look like for our population?'"