IQALUIT, Nunavut — Nunavut is extending its "circuit-breaker'' lockdown as a rise in COVID-19 infections pushes the territory's health-care system to a breaking point.
The territory's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said Wednesday the province has 74 cases in eight communities after counting zero cases on Dec. 21.
"We are seeing COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the territory and we know that some cases are a direct result of visiting in homes," Patterson said during a news conference.
"I know this is difficult but right now social gatherings are not allowed, whether you are vaccinated or not."
Premier P.J. Akeeagok said the ban on indoor gatherings that was put in place before Christmas is being extended to Jan. 17 as a result of the rising case counts of the Omicron variant across the country.
Libraries, gyms, arenas and churches must also remain closed and restaurants are limited to takeout food only.
Travel to and from Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Sanirajak and Arviat has also been restricted to essential purposes only.
Akeeagok said the lack of housing in the territory is exasperating the spread of COVID-19 and tuberculosis in Pangnirtung, an Inuit hamlet in the Qikiqtaaluk area, because locals are not able to isolate safely.
"I have been working with staff to draft requests for assistance from the federal government," Akeeagok said.
Patterson said the increase in COVID-19 cases is also straining the health-care system.
"There's just not enough staff to go around," he said. "The rise is … putting extreme pressure on our health system, including our ability to manage contact tracing and surveillance testing."
Patterson said shipping tests to labs that are also dealing with a backlog has made it difficult to immediately count how many new infections of Omicron are in the territory.
"For most communities, there is the need to fly samples to labs. Once the samples get to the labs, they're tested within 24 to 48 hours," he said.
"With contact tracing, our ability to identify and follow all threads of transmission is being hampered by the sheer volume."
Patterson said he's also concerned about additional cases in the coming weeks as people return to the territory from the south after the holidays.
"A negative test result does not mean that it is safe to leave isolation early," he told reporters.
"There is still a chance that the virus has not grown enough to be detected and that you could be spreading the infection to other people. This is why it is vital that people travelling home who are not triple vaccinated isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
"The risks are too high right now and we can only contain these outbreaks with the help and co-operation of all."
He said the government is preparing test kits and will provide an update on how those kits could help community members in the coming days.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2021.
— By Fakiha Baig in Edmonton.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press