WHITEHORSE — Yukon's chief public health officer paused and fought back tears as he urged residents to follow COVID-19 public health orders to help fight widespread community transmission that has pushed hospitals to their limits.
Dr. Brendan Hanley said the territory has the highest active case rate in the country and has asked the federal government for help in controlling the outbreak.
On Wednesday, there were 10 new infections, for a total of 130 active cases, and one more death. Three people have died since the outbreak began. Two others died earlier in the pandemic.
“We have a whole team of heroes working in the trenches right now and I can tell you they are tired," Hanley said during a news conference.
Health Minister Tracy McPhee said seven nurses from Ontario were on the way to Yukon.
"The current wave is the biggest challenge that we have faced yet, and we need ... to come together to stop COVID-19 from spreading," McPhee said.
Just over three-quarters of adults and 62 per cent of youth in the territory have been fully vaccinated.
Some 82 per cent of those currently infected are unvaccinated and are between one and 90 years old.
"This outbreak is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated Yukoners. Unvaccinated individuals need to be extremely careful," McPhee said.
"Many people are getting infected and our capacity to handle this number of cases and this much illness is sorely stretching our ability to cope. Some people are getting very sick."
Hanley said the outbreak is being driven by the Gamma variant first identified in Brazil and is mostly affecting people between 10 and 29 years old. He has said previously that it is strongly linked to recent graduation events, parties and young adults frequenting bars and restaurants around Whitehorse.
Transmission should drop in the next couple of weeks if people stop socializing and limit gatherings to six, he added. He also said parents who are not essential workers should keep their kids home from daycare for the next two weeks. Eighteen cases have been reported at a Whitehorse daycare.
"If we pull in the reins, buckle down, we can make a huge difference in this outbreak."
Hanley said this is Yukon's first true wave of COVID-19. The territory had zero to low case counts for most of the pandemic.
Dr. Brian Conway, director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said outbreaks like the one in Yukon will continue to happen across Canada among unvaccinated people.
"We should assume COVID will be around for years and years until it's proven otherwise," Conway said.
He also said making sure every eligible person has both doses of vaccine as quickly as possible is key to stopping the spread of variants.
"We must remind ourselves that this is not the end. There are places around the world that don't have the vaccination rates that we have and there's the risk of variants coming in through travel."
At the same time, public health measures, if followed, will likely be able to control Yukon's outbreak, Conway said.
"I wouldn't be discouraged by this outbreak. It's not something you want to see, but it's something that's going to happen."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press