COVID-19 vaccines now available to all adult residents in Yellowknife, health minister says

Health Minister Julie Green said vaccination efforts are ahead of schedule, and any adult resident of Yellowknife can now sign up for an appointment.

Health minister made announcement in press conference Wednesday morning

Health Minister Julie Green provides a COVID-19 update Wednesday. (Kate Kyle/CBC News)

All adult Yellowknife residents can now book an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Health Minister Julie Green announced in a press conference Wednesday.

The surprise announcement moves forward timelines for general vaccinations, which were not due to begin for another week. Green said the territory is "ahead of schedule" in its efforts to meet an April 30 deadline for vaccinating 75 per cent of all eligible adults.

As of March 6, the territory has vaccinated half of all adults, she said.

Vaccine supply has also improved, allowing officials to expand priority populations to include non-resident workers in "congregant situations," said Green.

"We have moved from scarcity of vaccine to a strong supply that enables us to shift priority groups quickly," she said.

Green asked residents to keep their appointments for receiving a second dose, as missed appointments make it harder for clinic staff and take up slots that others could be using.

Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, said as many as 40 per cent of appointments are being missed.

"That's an appointment that someone else could take," she said, "and as we know, the vaccine doses are very precious."

"Vials that have been opened can't be closed," Green said.

Immediately following the announcement, hundreds of people entered the online queue to book the COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Users experienced delays of up to half an hour in accessing the booking site.

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,800 appointments had been booked, according to a spokesperson for the health department.

Travel still discouraged

Green and Premier Caroline Cochrane, who spoke at Wednesday's press conference, both stressed that while March is a popular time for travel, non-essential travel is not advisable. 

"I know that this is difficult, but because of the high number of cases in southern Canada, as well as around the world … non-essential travel is not recommended at this time," said Cochrane.

Although travel is not recommended, the decision to do so is "left to each person to make," she said, asking residents to make "informed decisions" based on case counts in their destination.

"We hope … that you stay local, and explore what our territory has to offer," said Cochrane.

Cochrane also asked the organizers of jamborees and spring carnivals, which normally occur around this time of year, to keep public health restrictions in mind.

An info sheet for organizers has been posted on the territory's COVID-19 website.

Restrictions will stay

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, suggested that public health restrictions requiring mandatory self-isolation for returning travellers would stay in place for some time.

Kandola said she's now looking for higher vaccine uptake "across Canada" before she'd consider reducing restrictions. She also said there is a "race against [COVID-19] variants" which may reduce the vaccine's efficacy.

"We're really looking out a couple of months minimum, before we can get that picture," she said.

"N.W.T., yes, we're protected, but for us to go back to full normal, the rest of Canada needs to be protected."

Even eased restrictions within the territory will take time, she said.

Before phase three of the territory's reopening plan will be considered, she said the territory has to consider if it has "provided every single N.W.T. resident the opportunity to be vaccinated."

"If we have significant uptake, and we don't anticipate strain on the health system ... then we can move more into relaxed restrictions for everyone."

'Hold off for now' on vaccine docs for travel

Dr. Pegg, the medical director, also spoke briefly about vaccine documentation and its use for travel.

Pegg confirmed that health authorities received a "number of requests" from people looking to get copies of their vaccination records.

"There is a significant time delay in our ability to process those," she said.

Pegg said the territory is taking their lead from the federal government on vaccine documentation, and the conversation about what form that could take is still underway.

She asked those who want their vaccination record in anticipation of future international travel or "just in case … to hold off for now."

According to the territory's COVID-19 website, there was only one active case of COVID-19 in the territory as of Tuesday evening. An outbreak at the territory's Gahcho Kué mine has been stabilized, health officials say, and all other cases have recovered.

As of Tuesday, more than 17,000 people in the N.W.T. had received a first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 11,000 had received a second. The chief public health officer has maintained that they will reach their target of 75 per cent of adults vaccinated by the end of April.

Last week, health officials announced that returning residents would now be allowed to self-isolate in Norman Wells and Fort Simpson, in addition to the four large communities identified at the beginning of the pandemic.  

The N.W.T. has seen just 74 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with 27 cases involving non-residents.

Miss the press conference? Watch it in full below: