Q+A | COVID-19 transmissions slow for now, but people should still use precautions, says N.W.T. acting CPHO

Dr. André Corriveau, who is filling in for Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola, while she is on holiday. (Katie Toth/CBC - image credit)
Dr. André Corriveau, who is filling in for Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola, while she is on holiday. (Katie Toth/CBC - image credit)

As cold weather settles over the Northwest Territories, people will once again be indoors more often and that can increase the chance of exposure to COVID-19, along with colds and the flu.

But, Dr. Andre Corriveau, a previous N.W.T. chief public health officer who is temporarily filling in for Dr. Kami Kandola, said there's some good news.

So far, there's no sign of a resurgence of COVID-19 in the N.W.T., and the situation "seems to be calm right now," he said.

There are still steps residents can take, however, to protect themselves and slow the spread of COVID and other respiratory viruses.

CBC News spoke with Corriveau on this and what N.W.T.'ers can do to further protect themselves.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What's the overview of the COVID situation in the Northwest Territories right now? How are our numbers looking? How's transmission?

The situation seems to be calm right now, for us, looking at our wastewater surveillance and other indicators. It's still around. But actually, the peak in the last few months really occurred in late July, early August, we had a big wave.

But we're seeing activity across Canada. And the other thing that's of concern is that this year, we're seeing a big return of other respiratory illnesses, as you've probably seen in the news across Canada, a pediatric hospital being overwhelmed with RSV [Respiratory syncytial virus], like babies with RSV. We haven't seen a big increase yet, but it's going to come. Its to a point where there's even a shortage of the acetaminophen for kids, because of the demand that has increased.

Infectious diseases are still around, including COVID. But there's other ones, too, that we need to be concerned about.

Is the N.W.T. prepared for this convergence, specifically, of flu season and COVID season when we don't have the restrictions in place right now?

I think we are relatively well positioned, and the vaccine programs are still running … we're recommending being up to date with your COVID vaccine, but also with the flu vaccine.

The clinic is going on as we speak. So that's … an important element. The other thing I think it's useful for people to remember is that the reason we didn't see a lot of other respiratory illnesses in the past couple of years was because of the restrictions, and the mandates to wear a mask and to do other precautionary measures to isolate when you're sick.

Those measures are no longer mandatory, but they proved their value. And I think what's important for people to remember is that some of those habits can and should be maintained, especially if you live around or you interface with people who are more vulnerable, whose immune system is weaker, people who are being treated with cancer or have diabetes … all of those measures — being up to date, immunization, staying home when you're sick, wearing a mask, if you're coughing, and you have to go out and about — are still very important measures that make a big difference.

What are some lessons that we learned from the past two years from the COVID pandemic and how can we carry them forward as we are still living with COVID?

First of all, I think there's been a big push to make testing more available with self test kits that can be procured fairly easily.

Especially for people who may be living with somebody that … is more vulnerable or high risk for a severe infection, whether it's with influenza, or to check if you have COVID, is something that can be done.

Employers have learned to be a little bit more flexible — it's not every type of job that you can do that — but if you're in a work setting that will allow you to work at home, if you're not feeling well, or even if you have a little bit of a sore throat, and you're not quite sure if it's going to evolve into something else, then, if you have the opportunity and the ability to stay home and work from home, that's always a good idea.

Wear a mask if you think you've been exposed for a few days, so that if you do get started coughing or something, you're not going to spread it all over around you. Those are all good practices. Washing your hands often. And, avoiding these really large crowds if you can, or wearing a mask, if you go somewhere where that's going to be super crowded, and you have no ways to distance yourself from other people.

Let's talk as well about vaccine uptake right now — are people still getting not only the flu vaccine, but specifically the COVID boosters? 

Certainly the uptake is happening, there's always … a good third of the population that was very keen to get it and they're the ones who rush in. And then there's people who kind of just wait, they're busy, and it … doesn't seem urgent, and they'll probably come more when they hear that we're starting to see a lot of cases and then there's always a smaller proportion of population that prefers not to get vaccinated.

So, we're obviously trying to shift that group gradually. But it's important to make sure that it's available. I think the clinic here in Yellowknife, and in the communities, are offering both the COVID vaccine and the flu vaccine which you can get safely at the same time. I got both at the same time this year. And certainly, it's an option that simplifies things a lot.

Is it possible we might potentially see public health restrictions coming back into play? 

Well, we can never rule it out. Obviously, I don't know, I don't really think that anybody is actively talking about this right now. And then certainly the purpose all along, even at the beginning, before we had vaccines, when we still didn't know very much about COVID itself, the goal was to protect our health-care system.

At this point, we're hoping that with the level of protection that already exists, and with people maintaining good practices, like I just spoke about, we can manage. Everybody is aware ... that human resources in health care is a big issue across the country, not just in the Northwest Territories … it's a big challenge to have the right level of health care in all of our communities. So those are the types of considerations that have to be looked at if there was a sudden surge or a very lethal new variant that came in a case that was uncovered in the coming months or years.

So, I wouldn't rule that out, but I don't think this is on anybody's active discussion right now.