Children, youth account for 90% of COVID-19 cases in Yellowknife: CPHO

Ninety per cent of infections stemming from a recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Yellowknife are among children and youth, health officials announced at a news conference Friday.

Officials did not rule out connection to earlier Yellowknife cluster

Students head back to class at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife in August 2020. On Friday during a news conference, N.W.T. health officials said 90 per cent of cases in the recent school outbreak are in youth. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Ninety per cent of COVID-19 cases stemming from a recent outbreak in a Yellowknife school are among children and youth, health officials announced at a news conference Friday.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer (CPHO), said the city's 47 active cases, as of Thursday evening, can all be connected to students at N.J. Macpherson School, their close contacts, or their household members.

"We have not identified new infections emerging in people not connected to the current school outbreak," she said.

While Kandola has not identified the source of the outbreak, she has repeatedly said it does not constitute "community spread," where the source of the infection is unknown.

On Friday, when asked, she did not rule out the possibility that the outbreak in the city's schools was connected to an earlier cluster of cases in Yellowknife that included Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn.

"We do have reason to believe that there was exposure to a case that was during their infectious period, and we are investigating that further, but that's all we can provide," she said.

As of Friday evening, there were 52 active COVID-19 cases in the territory, including four involving non-resident workers: two at the Ekati diamond mine and two at the Imperial Oil work site in Norman Wells, N.W.T.

The territory's latest COVID-19 numbers also show there are 48 active cases in Yellowknife, up by one from the day before, along with three probable case.

The territory has listed multiple public exposure notifications on its website connected to the Yellowknife outbreak. The list also indicates two places, Sutherlands Drugs and Fatburger, that are no longer considered exposure sites.

Kandola said no cases have yet been tied to any exposure sites, but the city is entering a "critical time period," five to seven days from the possible exposure, when those cases typically appear.

More than 1,000 residents have been identified as contacts to the outbreak at N.J. Macpherson and are in mandatory 14-day isolation.

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Kandola took the extraordinary step of asking those contacts to confine themselves to their property during the full length of the period, even if they are vaccinated and test negative for the disease.

Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, said it's because "there is a chance that the viral load in the person is still too low to actually be picked up by the test."

"This is extremely different when we talk about people travelling into the N.W.T.," Kandola said. "We're talking about households and close contacts of known COVID[-19] positive cases, and we're talking about a highly transmissible … variant."

As of Thursday evening, 10 positive cases had been confirmed to be the B117 or UK variant, which transmits more easily than other COVID-19 types.

Youth vaccine appointments book up fast

Thursday also marked the first day children aged 12 years old and up could get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was approved by Health Canada this week.

Kandola said the territory was the first jurisdiction in Canada "and possibly the world" to offer the vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds.

Terriorial medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, left, and N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola, right. (CBC)

Pegg said more than 500 vaccine appointments for youth were booked within two hours Thursday, when it first became available. Among them was Kandola's own son.

Schools in Yellowknife and neighbouring communities have been closed to in-person learning since the outbreak was identified on May 2.

In nearby Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., local leaders are preparing for the possibility of new cases being discovered in the community.

Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels said he was working with the territory to begin wastewater testing, and has identified some housing that can be provided to individuals who need to self-isolate but don't have the space at home.

The community is also considering establishing checkpoints on the access road, "mostly for information … and monitoring," he said.

After pleading with members to get vaccinated, Daniels said there was a good turnout at a Thursday vaccine clinic and all doses were used.

Another clinic is planned for adults Monday, followed by the first vaccination clinic for youth in Behchokǫ̀ Tuesday.

So far, 26,333 people have received their first dose of the vaccine in the territory, according to the territory's latest numbers on Thursday afternoon. There have been 21,674 second doses administered as well.