Yukon health officials are defending their plan to drop more COVID-19 restrictions starting next week, saying they are "no longer justified," and that the plan heralds a new phase in the territory's pandemic response.
The plan, announced last week, will see the territory's border controls lifted as of August 4. That means nobody will be stopped on entry to the territory, required to fill out a declaration form, or isolate if they're not vaccinated. People passing through will also no longer have just 24 hours to leave Yukon.
Masks will no longer be mandatory in indoor public places after August 4.
"I know our plan to lift restrictions has caused both excitement and concern, as well as confusion," said Premier Sandy Silver at the government's weekly COVID-19 update on Wednesday morning.
"We are entering a new stage in the pandemic and we are dealing with a new paradigm."
The announcement last week to lift restrictions in August came as a surprise to many in Yukon, including some First Nations leaders who questioned the timing.
Yukon is still in the midst of its first major wave of COVID-19 infections, and new cases are being reported daily. Health officials acknowledge that the wave is having a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities.
Still, officials say border controls in particular are a "heavy and blunt instrument" that is no longer necessary based on the risk of importation.
"As leaders, we have to strike a balance between individual rights and public safety," Silver said.
"Now, with eight out of 10 Yukoners fully vaccinated and case counts decreasing, the restrictions, as I said, are no longer justified and we have a responsibility to lift them."
Watch Wednesday's news conference here:
The greater risk now, according to the territory's chief medical officer, is large gatherings involving unvaccinated people. That's what sparked the recent wave and it's an ongoing concern, says Dr. Brendan Hanley.
"This is where we have to rethink our whole strategy and no longer look outside the territory, towards the border, but look at what should we doing, what can we be doing better, within the territory," Hanley said at Wednesday's news conference.
"It is about becoming smarter, about how we match measures to risk — recognizing that we are in a much different place than we were a year ago, when vaccination was still a distant dream."
Restrictions on gatherings will therefore remain in place for now, Hanley said. Bars and restaurants are going back to full capacity, but Hanley says that's not an invitation to mingle freely at the bar, or start dancing again.
"We're not there yet," Hanley said.
No 'final inning' to pandemic
Hanley described the territory as now being at a "pivotal point," where COVID-19 becomes less of a public health emergency, and is simply endemic.
"I think many of us are beginning to accept that there may not be a final inning to this pandemic, no waking up one morning to find that life is just as it was 17 months ago," he said.
"This virus is, like floods and climate change, part of our new reality."
Silver also said that easing some restrictions does not mark the end of anything — and he said it's essential that efforts continue to vaccinate as many Yukoners as possible.
"We are not hanging up our gloves and walking away as though a job is done. We're transitioning. We recognize that we are not out of this pandemic yet — far from it."
On Wednesday, officials also said any Yukoner born in 2009 is now eligible to be vaccinated, whether or not they've turned 12. Until now, only those 12 and up were eligible to get a shot.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the territory had 89 active cases. More than half — 48 cases — were in Whitehorse, and 29 were in Watson Lake/Lower Post. The handful of other active cases were scattered among six other communities.
Health officials also said Tuesday that for the first time in more than a week, Yukon has seen more recoveries than new cases. Six new cases were reported on Tuesday, while the number of recovered people went up by seven.
Since June 1, there have been 519 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the territory, and 582 total since the start of the pandemic. Those numbers include out-of-territory residents diagnosed in Yukon and probable cases.
As of Monday, about 80 per cent of eligible adult Yukoners and 62 per cent of those 12 to 17 years old were fully vaccinated. Eighty-six per cent of adults and 73 per cent of adolescents had received at least one shot.