IQALUIT, Nunavut — Nunavut has two active COVID-19 cases after the infections were identified in a hamlet on Baffin Island.
It's not yet known if the cases are the highly transmissible Omicron variant of concern, but its threat is leading the government to bolster public health measures.
Travel in or out of Pangnirtung, where cases were identified Monday, is being limited to essential purposes and gathering limits are in place for indoor and outdoor settings.
These are the first cases of COVID-19 seen in the small community of about 1,500 people.
"Once again, this holiday season, we must remain vigilant. It's not time to let our guard down," said Premier P.J. Akeeagok during a news conference in Iqaluit on Tuesday.
"We are seeing mounting cases of Omicron across the country and the statistics are alarming."
Akeeagok urged residents of the territory to follow all public health measures to prevent spread of the virus, including masking, getting vaccinated and avoiding unnecessary travel.
Nunavut's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said confirmation of the cases out of Pangnirtung were expected later Tuesday but it is "unlikely that these are false positive results."
With the growing threat of Omicron, the government is strengthening public health measures immediately.
"We have rescinded the recent order to allow communities some larger gatherings over the holidays," said Patterson.
"This decision was not made easily or lightly but it is necessary due to the increased risk that Omicron poses."
He noted the variant can spread quickly, even among those who are double vaccinated against COVID-19. Patterson encouraged those who have not yet received a booster dose to make an appointment.
"We do need to change our response to match this increased risk."
Health Minister John Main said health-care service reductions are expected.
"Our health-care system is stretched extra thin across Nunavut," said Main.
"In the short term, our staffing resources are limited and, although we have been working hard to recruit and retain the health professionals needed across the territory, service reductions will be felt in many communities over the holidays."
Some communities will be on emergency-only service and will have reduced access to vaccines, for both COVID-19 and influenza.
In Pangnirtung, outdoor gatherings are restricted to 50 people and indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people plus household members.
Indoor public gatherings, fitness centres, libraries, galleries and museums are limited to 25 people or 50 per cent capacity, while restaurants are capped at 25 per cent capacity.
Places of worship can have a maximum of 50 people, or 25 per cent capacity. Arenas can stretch to 50 per cent capacity or 50 people, whichever is less, in addition to 50 spectators.
"I know that many of us were hoping for a more normal Christmas like the one we had prior to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Akeeagok.
"Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the holiday season, especially the Christmas games. But this year, I will not be taking part in any games. I want to do my part to keep my family and our community safe."
— By Alanna Smith in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.
The Canadian Press