Yukon's chief medical officer of health is describing a recent spike in Whitehorse-based COVID-19 cases as an outbreak.
Dr. Brendan Hanley confirmed in an interview Friday morning that of Yukon's 13 active cases, nine are in Whitehorse, while a tenth case in a rural community was exposed to COVID-19 in Whitehorse.
"This is definitely a Whitehorse-based outbreak," Hanley said.
Dawson City mayor Wayne Potoroka identified his community on Facebook as the location of the community case. The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin government, also on Facebook, posted about an exposure notice issued for its main administration building.
The remaining three cases are part of the Victoria Gold outbreak, which is now considered under control. Officials are still investigating whether the outbreaks are linked.
"This is a story of what happens when you introduce COVID into a highly-vaccinated population — however, where you still have 30 per cent or so of adults who are susceptible and unvaccinated," Hanley said of Yukon's current situation.
Vaccines vs. variants
Another part of the story, Hanley said, is the introduction of a variant of concern into the territory; five of the 13 cases have been confirmed to be the P.1 or Gamma variant, which is believed to have originated in Brazil.
Hanley described P.1 as "the same old Wuhan COVID-19 on steroids," noting that it appears to be more transmissible and can cause more serious illness in younger people.
While vaccines are slightly less effective against variants of concern compared to the original coronavirus, Hanley said the protection offered by vaccination was still "very effective."
"A fully vaccinated person has much less chance of acquiring this infection, and if a fully vaccinated person does get infected … they do well, they get mild disease and they are much less likely to pass it on to others," he explained.
The Yukon government said in a news release Thursday that of the territory's 13 cases, 12 were not fully vaccinated. Three of those people have been hospitalized, with two since medevaced to hospitals outside the territory in what Hanely described as "ICU condition."
The lone person among the 13 who had received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed only "mild symptoms" from the infection.
While the active case count is the highest the territory has seen in months, Hanley also said the situation could have been much worse without Yukon's current vaccination rate. More than 70 per cent of the adult population has now received both doses of the Moderna vaccine; had the territory been facing the P.1 variant before the roll-out of Yukon's vaccination campaign, or had there been low uptake, there would be "hundreds of cases."
"We would be seeing an explosive outbreak," Hanley said, instead of the "trickle" being seen now.
"I'm still very concerned because, as we're seeing, people are getting sick, but we are not seeing an explosion of cases."
Hanley said that at this stage, there was no need to re-introduce any COVID-19 restrictions that have loosened, such as the waiving of the mandatory 14-day isolation period for fully-vaccinated Canadians entering the territory or increasing allowable gathering sizes.
However, he added that the outbreak was a good reminder about the importance of continuing to follow public health measures and for Yukoners to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"We're going to see more cases, I'm sure of it," he said. "We're identifying more contacts and I think from day to day we will find more cases, but I think we will ultimately get in control of this."
Two Whitehorse cases in McIntyre, First Nation says
Kwanlin Dün First Nation, meanwhile, issued a notice on Facebook Friday afternoon that there were two confirmed COVID-19 cases in its McIntyre community. As a result, the First Nation is moving into a modified version of Phase II of its pandemic plan, according to the notice, which will see some government services scaled back and extra precautions added.
The First Nation will stay in Phase II until June 25 to allow time for contact tracing.
The notice urged citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to get tested if they were experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms or are close contacts with a confirmed case. It also asked citizens to continue to following public health measures like maintaining physical distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and refraining from holding parties or gatherings.
"Most of all, be kind to one another," the notice said. "This is a very tough time but we will get through this."