N.W.T. health minister plans to bring an end to public health emergency 'this spring'

In a news conference Wednesday, N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green said she expects to bring an end to the public health emergency "this spring.”

Health officials updated the COVID-19 situation in the N.W.T. during a press conference Wednesday

Health Minister Julie Green will address media Wednesday on the subject of vaccines for children aged 5 to 11. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green expects to bring an end to the public health emergency around COVID-19 "this spring."

Green made the comments during an online news conference with health and education officials on Wednesday, telling reporters the territory is preparing for a "transition phase." 

"The end of the public health emergency will not be the end of our management of outbreaks," said Green. "But it will be the end of public health orders and the government secretariat, which was set up to implement those public health orders." 

Green says the planning includes the transfer of services now being offered by the COVID secretariat to the Department of Health "so that we have the resources and staff available to continue to manage outbreaks." 

In the meantime, Green said there will be other "steps along the way." 

"We'll be considering when it's appropriate to open our borders to leisure travelers," she said. 

The news also came with a caveat: Green described the COVID-19 situation as "dynamic, as it has been throughout the last two years." 

She pointed out the government had considered opening leisure travel in December but had decided against it because of the "advancement of the Omicron variant." 

Low vaccination rates in children aged 5 to 11

The news conference was billed as discussion of the vaccines for children aged five to 11. 

The territory recently announced second doses of COVID-19 vaccines are available to this age group, but so far only 57 per cent have had their first dose. That's compared to 88 per cent in the 12-and-over age category. 

Vaccine clinics for five- to 11-year-olds in communities outside of Yellowknife began last week. A list of clinics dates is available on the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority website. 

Dr. André Corriveau, the territory's acting chief public health officer, told reporters the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recently strengthened its recommendation on COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11. The committee is now recommending children aged five to 11 be vaccinated, whereas previously they had only indicated that it was safe to do so. 

A new comic book produced by the N.W.T. government, and designed to entice young people to get vaccinated. (GNWT)

He said that's an important announcement and he hopes there will be "a strong followup" by parents in the N.W.T. 

Health Minister Julie Green said the territory now has a campaign targeted at children and youth in the territory, using a comic book and a colouring contest to teach children about how vaccines work, and their effectiveness. 

"We are trying to make sure that children are well-informed about this," Green said. "And that there may be some momentum from the children to reluctant parents to get vaccinated, that they see the benefits of that." 

Concerns about return to school

With most communities now back to in-school learning in the territory, Corriveau told reporters they'd "heard many concerns." 

He said the benefits of in-school learning outweigh the small risk of COVID-19 infection in schools. 

"We have consistently observed here and and elsewhere across the world that children have been much less frequently impacted by severe illness from COVID," Corriveau said. 

He says that continues to be true for the Omicron variant. 

"On the other hand, there's accumulated evidence now that there are significant adverse effects to children's mental well-being and their social development when we continue… depriving children of the supports that are available in the school environment.

Shannon Barnett-Aikman, the assistant deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment said the decision to open schools ultimately rests with individual school districts. 

Shannon Barnett-Aikman, Dr. André Corriveau and AnneMarie Pegg during an online news conference Wednesday. (CBC)

But she said that there are "very strong health and safety measures" in schools including daily symptoms, checks, classroom bubbling, masking for students and staff and enhanced cleaning protocols. 

Barnett-Aikman said the first point of contact for parent's concerns about safety measures should be their local school principal or superintendent. 

Corriveau told reporters he doesn't expect a spike in cases, even though the return to in-school learning is happening as employees are also being encouraged to return to the workplace. 

"Our data still indicates that most clusters develop around gatherings and parties and within [the] community or household," He said "So that the workplace is not necessarily a very high risk environment"

Age of consent for vaccinations

Asked whether children or youth can get vaccinated without a parent's consent, Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, said there's no formal age of consent for vaccinations in the N.W.T.

She said children under 12 would not generally be considered capable of making that decision without the consent of a parent or legal caregiver. 

Beyond that, she said, deciding if someone is able to give consent is something people administering vaccinations do with everyone they vaccinate, based on a discussion. 

Pegg said nurses need to have a "reasonable assurance that the person sitting in front of them and listening to the information about the vaccination … is able to to understand what the risks and benefits of receiving that vaccine are."