N.W.T. health officials defend lingering COVID-19 restrictions

Dr. Kami Kandola and Scott Robertson of the Health and Social Services authority took questions live on The Trailbreaker.

Dr. Kami Kandola says N.W.T. won't fully lift self-isolation requirements until national case count drops

Scott Robertson, the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority's COVID operations executive co-lead, left, and Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer. (CBC)

Health officials with the Northwest Territories government say self-isolation rules and other restrictions will have to remain in place until vaccination numbers rise and daily case counts drop in the rest of Canada.

That's in line with the territory's refreshed reopening plan released on Wednesday, which, if all goes as projected, could see all restrictions lifted by mid to late fall.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, and Scott Roberston, with the territory's Health and Social Services Authority, took the latest COVID-19 questions live on CBC Radio's The Trailbreaker with Loren McGinnis Thursday morning. 

While other jurisdictions have eased self-isolation requirements for people who are fully vaccinated, the N.W.T. has adopted a more cautious approach. People who are vaccinated can get tested after eight days of self-isolation, and if they test negative, can then leave quarantine.

"What we've seen is that this vaccine isn't 100 per cent fully effective against preventing infection … We've also seen partially immunized people develop COVID and then even pass it on to other people," Kandola said.

"So it's been transmission. When the overall count across Canada dips below an average of 1,000, we feel that's a good time to lift the isolation requirements for fully immunized [people] because we don't have to take into account the importation risk." 

What does Emerging Wisely mean for elders in long-term care homes?

Robertson said the government is looking at ways to ease visiting restrictions at long-term care homes. But he said elders remain one of the most vulnerable populations. 

"We want to certainly provide more options for visitation, but ensure that we're doing it safely and in alignment with the with the other public health measures that are in place," he said. 

Kandola said that while she has relaxed restrictions on both indoor and outdoor gatherings, some institutions may continue enforcing rules that are more strict than the official guidelines.

When can kids under 12 get vaccinated?

So far, Health Canada has not approved any COVID-19 vaccines for use in children under 12 years old. In the N.W.T., adults 18 years and up get the Moderna vaccine, while the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is approved for teens aged 12 to 17. Kandola said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently undergoing clinical trials in people under 12.

Robertson said the government hopes to see Health Canada approval for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in children under 12 years old by late August or early September.

"I would think that around the start of school would be the time," he said. "Hopefully we'll see approval then and our teens will be ready to administer vaccine at that time." 

Will there be vaccine credentials?

Discussions continue about the creation of so-called vaccine passports that would make it easier to travel, both internationally and within Canada. Some provinces and territories are already working on vaccine certification schemes of their own.

In the N.W.T., vaccine records lack any sort of government identification, which makes them functionally useless for travel, one listener complained.

Robertson said the government is aware this is an issue and has officials participating in a national working group tasked with developing a standardized vaccine certification for Canadians. The process is complex, he said.

"Even documents that have a lot of security features in them are being forged worldwide," Robertson said. "This is an ongoing problem." 

Robertson said the territory has developed a letter, signed by medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, which makes it easier for people to prove their vaccination status. But more sophisticated forms of proof will have to wait, Robertson said.

"We've been reluctant to invest a lot of time to create something that's just going to change anyway," he said.

Can we have yard sales again?

"Yes," Kandola said.

As of Wednesday, outdoor gatherings were bumped up to allow 200 people maximum.

Indoor gatherings are still limited, but is expected to be bumped up to a maximum of 200 people by early July, or when the territory has 66 to 75 per cent of its 18-and-up population fully vaccinated or 75 per cent partially vaccinated.