A plan to loosen COVID-19 restrictions in the N.W.T. is coming soon, says the territory's chief public health officer.
But keep those masks handy.
"What people fail to realize is we're still in a pandemic," said Dr. Kami Kandola during a bi-weekly COVID-19 call-in show on CBC's The Trailbreaker Thursday morning.
"Some of the public health mitigation measures that we have put in place will still be required until the situation subsides, not only for N.W.T. but for the rest of Canada as well."
Kandola and the territory's medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg fielded questions from listeners about the pandemic, including when modified isolation protocols might be coming for people who are immunized.
Kandola said she expects her office to provide an update on that shortly, but provided few other details. CBC requested clarification on which restrictions could be modified and how officials will differentiate between immunized and non-immunized residents, but has not received a reply.
Kandola also reiterated that her staff are looking to update the territory's Emerging Wisely document, which lays out what is and isn't allowed during the pandemic.
The document was developed a year ago, back when vaccine timelines were still murky, and little was known about variants of concerns that are now guiding public health decisions around the country.
Kandola is hoping to have an updated document within the next two weeks.
"Given what's happening in the rest of Canada, it would be prudent to first start with the outdoor restrictions, which is less risky than lifting the indoor restrictions. The trigger for lifting the indoor restrictions will be a bending in the third wave and an increase in vaccine rollout in the rest of Canada," she said.
The vaccine rollout in the N.W.T. far outpaces most of the country — Kandola said 62 per cent of N.W.T. residents with an active N.W.T. health card has received one dose of the Moderna vaccine, while 44 per cent have received both.
There is one active case among N.W.T. residents in the territory.
The vaccine is not available for anyone under 18 years old, something that's not expected to change in the foreseeable future.
Kandola said Moderna is conducting clinical trials with more than 3,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 and expects the company to release its findings by late spring or early summer.
Health Canada will then review it, and any approvals will only come after the regulator checks the data for safety, efficacy and quality.
Moderna is also conducting a clinical trial in Canada for children aged five to 11. The results are expected early in 2022.
Last month, Pfizer and BioNTech said their COVID-19 vaccine is safe with "demonstrated 100 per cent efficacy" in preventing the disease in those aged 12 to 15, following a clinical trial of 2,260 adolescents.
The findings still need to be reviewed by Health Canada. Kandola expects Moderna's trial will have similar results to Pfizer's because it's the same type of vaccine platform, known as messenger RNA (mRNA), which is used by cells to translate instructions found in DNA to make proteins.
In this case, the instructions tell a human cell how to make a stabilized version of the spike protein for SARS-CoV2. That introduces the protein into the body so immune cells can learn to recognize it and produce antibodies against it.
However, the fact that children cannot receive the vaccine means a significant portion of N.W.T.'s population is unvaccinated.
Kandola also confirmed the territory's original goal of having 75 per cent of eligible residents immunized needs to be higher, given the higher rate of transmission and hospitalizations coming from cases of variants of concern.
"So, that herd immunity, unfortunately, has to be a little bit higher," she said.
"The one advice I would give people who choose not to be vaccinated is that we need a higher number of people getting vaccinated to provide that herd protection for you. And the best way for you to protect yourself is to get vaccinated."
If a variant of concern arrived in a community, Kandola said it can spread quickly, particularly in the school system.
That's one reason why Kandola said wearing masks is still recommended for people, even if they're fully vaccinated.
"Right now, as it stands, we have to continue those public health measures," she said.
"This is the only way to protect yourself from exposure to a variant of concern that may have escaped immune response."
Yellowknife pop-up clinic
Residents looking to get either their first or second dose in Yellowknife will have the opportunity this weekend at the Yellowknife Co-op. Dr. Pegg said the grocery store will host a pop-up clinic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Residents do not need to book an appointment in advance.
"We're hoping that that goes well and that we can look at other places that we can do these pop-up clinics," Pegg said.
Vaccine teams have made three trips to each community, but Pegg said officials are still looking to get as many people vaccinated. If you want to get a shot, Pegg said to contact your health centre in your community.
She said the lowest uptake is among young people aged 18 to 29, particularly young men.
Here are a few more questions that came in for the doctors during the call-in show.
If a get the vaccine, can I go out on the land?
Absolutely – so long as you have not travelled outside of the territory in the past two weeks and are not required to isolate, Kandola said.
But you might want to wait 48 to 72 hours after your second dose, Pegg suggested, as more people develop noticeable side effects.
Arviat, Nunavut, the hardest hit community in Canada's North,held a cash draw of $2,000 for residents who were vaccinated in an effort to get more people to get the shot. But adding additional incentives beyond getting a vaccine to prevent yourself and the people you care about from getting sick is a fine line, said Pegg.
"There's a risk and a benefit to giving out incentives, to make sure that it doesn't slip into coercion," she said.
Bubbles with other territories
If you're coming from Nunavut and you're not a close contact of a COVID-19 case, have not been part of an outbreak or cluster of cases, you can qualify for an exemption, barring you're coming from a community without any travel restrictions.
Kandola said her office is working with Yukon on a similar agreement.
Missed the live call-in show? Watch it here: