NWT restrictions to lift April 1 despite uptick in new cases

The Northwest Territories is still on schedule to lift restrictions and the Public Health Emergency later this week despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Kami Kandola said she expects cases to continue to increase after restrictions are lifted next week

N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, pictured on October 21, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

The Northwest Territories is still on schedule to lift restrictions and the Public Health Emergency later this week despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Regardless of the new surge of Omicron cases across the Beaufort Delta and Yellowknife region, health officials say gathering restrictions and mask mandates will be lifted across the territory on April 1.

In fact, Dr. Kami Kandola, N.W.T. chief public health officer, said she expects cases to rise even further once those restrictions are lifted.

"When we do lift the Public Health Emergency there will be an increase in cases. The good news is we're not anticipating it to overwhelm our health care system," Kandola told CBC News. 

"If you're looking at severe outcomes of five people per 1000 people getting the disease, it doesn't justify continuing the state of public health emergency."

Communities like Aklavik and Inuvik are seeing an uptick in cases, possibly linked two large hockey tournaments that took place in the region this month. 

"Hockey is a high risk activity. It's an indoor winter sport and it can really facilitate spread and if you have many communities coming in, the transmission is high. It gets transmitted to participants and spectators and then goes back into the communities," Kandola said. 

In Yellowknife, Kandola said the increase is likely due to families traveling for March Break.

'Spring Wave'

With the arrival of the incredibly infectious BA.2 Omicron subvariant in the territory, Kandola is anticipating a "spring wave." 

The subvariant is believed to be 30 per cent more contagious than the original Omicron strain. But Kandola doesn't expect it to have as much of an impact as earlier waves. 

Data from reported positive cases in the territory show that roughly 25 per cent of the population has had the virus. Kandola said she believes this number could actually be as high 40 or 50 per cent of the population. 

"I believe the cases that we're capturing is a vast underestimate of what's actually out there," she said. 

"They are unlikely to get reinfected. Maybe a small percentage but it is unlikely." 

Kandola said it's important people remember that COVID-19 symptoms aren't always respiratory. She said some people infected by the BA.2 subvariant are reporting that the only symptom they're experiencing is diarrhea.

The difficulty with that, she said, is that people experiencing only gastrointestinal symptoms will most likely get a negative result from a rapid test using a nasal swab. 

Kandola also said the arrival of the more-contagious BA.2 subvariant is forcing health officials to re-examine their predictive modelling. The territory uses those models to determine future case counts and hospitalizations. 

The territory's current models have already had a flaw, predicting that at this stage the territory would have less than two people in hospital from COVID-19 complications. As of March 23, there were eight people in hospital.

The modelling for COVID-19 related hospitalizations does not reflect the current data. (Government of the Northwest Territories )

"What is unique with Omicron is we have patients who are being hospitalized that are staying longer than 10 days…there's a significant number of people that are staying past 10 days," Kandola said.

"The majority of those who are past 20 days, they're no longer infectious but they are requiring care for other reasons but they'll also... be counted [in the modelling] because they're drawing on health resources."

Kandola said the Department of Health will be "doing a deeper dive" on why those patients are staying longer in hospital than anticipated. 

Fourth dose

People who are severely immunocompromised are currently eligible to receive a fourth dose of Moderna's Spikevax vaccine. 

Kandola said the territory is looking at possibly offering a second booster to people considered "high-risk", such as those 80 years of age or older or those in long term care facilities.