N.W.T. adds more testing options, loosens isolation requirements for some travellers

A new public health order goes into effect at noon Friday that will allow parents of partially vaccinated kids to avoid self-isolation after travel, and allow unvaccinated travellers to leave self-isolation after eight days, if they produce a negative test for COVID-19.

Health minister, CPHO announce changes to the territory’s public health orders

N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola and the territory's Heath Minister Julie Green announced updates to COVID-19 testing and isolation rules during a virtual news conference on Friday. (CBC News)

A new public health order in the N.W.T. will allow parents of partially vaccinated kids to avoid self-isolation after travel, and allow unvaccinated travellers to leave self-isolation after eight days, if they produce a negative test for COVID-19. 

Previously, households who travelled outside of the territory with an unvaccinated or partially vaccinated family member would have to isolate based on the status of the least vaccinated household member, and could only take a COVID-19 test on day 10. Tests were not required for children under age two.

There are also new testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers who either work or volunteer with vulnerable populations, or travel to small communities in the territory.

They must now get tested on day one and day eight.

In a virtual update Friday, Health Minister Julie Green said there's a risk travellers will bring the Omicron variant back with them, "but testing and isolation will assist us with early detection and management."

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, said the changes are an important step forward.

"It will allow more freedoms for children who have travelled, while also protecting others in vulnerable settings," Kandola said.

No Omicron case in N.W.T. yet

Kandola said the territory had hoped to open up to tourism this week by allowing fully vaccinated people to travel to the N.W.T. but said that with Omicron cases soaring across Canada and around the world, it decided to postpone taking that step.

"The current landscape poses too much of a risk right now to open up to tourism," she said during the news conference.

Kandola said there isn't a COVID-19 case of the Omicron variant yet in the territory but expects that to change soon.

She said she expects the current public health measures, including the new one Friday, will help manage COVID-19 in the N.W.T.

She added she expects the measures to stay in place until spring but also said that if Omicron changes the situation in the N.W.T., especially its impact on the heath-care system, she'll consider other measures.

Right now, she said, she's keeping a close eye on the rapid rise of cases in the provinces, including Ontario, B.C. and especially Alberta because N.W.T. residents commonly travel there. 

"What I'm looking for is, does this rapid increase stress the health-care system?" she explained. "Are we going to see an increase in hospitalizations, ICU admissions, unfortunately even deaths in the provinces harder hit?"

She said it will take two to three weeks to get answers to those questions, and then decisions will be made whether or not to change the public health orders in the N.W.T.

Kandola said the good news so far is that early data about the Omicrom variant "suggests the booster dose increases protection against infection and severe health outcomes significantly."

She also said she's hoping N.W.T. residents who return from travel outside the territory will follow her recommendation to avoid high-risk activities and large gatherings, limit contacts outside their household and wear a mask around others for 72 hours after they return.

She said there is an average of 2,000 people who travel to the N.W.T. a week right now, about three times the number at this time last year, but "it's a highly vaccinated population."

44 per cent of children 5 to 11 have 1st dose

The new public health order also reiterates that partially vaccinated children under 12 have to get tested on the day they return from travelling outside the territory, and again on day eight. Children under 12 however do not need to self-isolate two weeks after they receive their first dose up until eight weeks.

The government said that 44 per cent of children aged five to 11 in the territory have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

It added that 76 per cent of the eligible population, those five years and older, are fully vaccinated and 83 per cent are partially vaccinated. It also said almost 14,000 third and booster doses have been administered in the territory.

Travellers from Nunavut

The new order also states people travelling from Nunavut, regardless of their vaccine status, don't need to self-isolate when they arrive in the N.W.T. as long as they haven't been outside of either territory or at a remote work camp 10 days before arriving in the N.W.T.

On Wednesday, the federal government advised Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside the country as the Omicron variant spreads across the world.