What will it take to ease public health restrictions in the N.W.T? MLAs ask health minister

In the Legislative Assembly Monday, N.W.T. MLAs pressed Health Minister Julie Green to provide more information on the territory’s plan to relax public health restrictions as residents and business owners prepare for another pandemic summer.

Updated plan for easing restrictions due next month

Health Minister Julie Green listens to a press conference on Sept. 8, 2020. In the Legislative Assembly Monday, MLAs asked for more information on how public health restrictions would be lifted. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

N.W.T. MLAs pressed Health Minister Julie Green in the Legislative Assembly Monday to give more information on the territory's plan to relax public health restrictions, as residents and business owners prepare for another pandemic summer.

The pressure to relax restrictions is mounting with the territory having gone weeks without new COVID-19 cases among N.W.T. residents, and vaccination rates in the territory on the rise.

Since June of last year, the territory has been in phase two of its Emerging Wisely plan for relaxing public health restrictions. 

Now, with a vaccination campaign well underway, the territory is inching closer to herd immunity — but whether that goalpost will remain at 75 per cent of the adult population is up for debate, according to Green. 

"I think that rate is now in question to some extent, given changing situations," said Green.

There are a number of new factors influencing how restrictions will be relaxed, she said — for example, the increase in highly-transmissible variants, which "feel closer to home than ever before," having recently popped up in Yukon and Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta.

Green added that there are still outstanding questions about whether those that are vaccinated can still carry the virus. 

Thirty-six per cent of N.W.T. adults have received both doses of the Moderna vaccine, according to Green. 

The rate of vaccinations varies by community and age group. Green said the highest uptake is in the older population, whereas, the 18 to 34 age demographic is "well below the 50 percent uptake in most communities." 

MLA Caitlin Cleveland asked Green if she knew what types of restrictions may be eased, like potential changes within N.W.T. borders, because it can impact how businesses plan for the summer. 

Green responded by saying that a high vaccination rate will "enable us to remove restrictions internally first."

Restrictions on summer music festivals, family gatherings, weddings, and business capacities will be relaxed initially, with border and self-isolation restrictions revisited afterwards, she said. 

Green added that she is "keen" on things returning to normal and that the steps toward normalcy will be made available to the public in the coming months. 

The chief public health officer has already said an updated version of the Emerging Wisely plan will be released in April.

Cleveland asked whether health officials were considering relaxing restrictions on a community-by-community basis, rather than territory-wide.

"If we here in Yellowknife have not reached [herd immunity], it would be really unfortunate to have surrounding communities really held back," said Cleveland. 

Green responded by saying she hoped the territory would reach the milestone of herd immunity together, adding that "we do not want to pit communities against one another, and that's definitely one of the risks."