N.W.T. health officials say Omicron wave must pass before leisure travel restrictions lift

As Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce President Rob Warburton calls for leisure travel to resume, N.W.T. health officials say the health system is still 'very fragile' — but their plan is to reopen the border to leisure travellers once this wave of COVID-19 has passed.

Dr. André Corriveau and Scott Robertson took questions on The Trailbreaker Thursday morning

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. André Corriveau, and Scott Robertson, the N.W.T. Health Authority's COVID Response Team co-lead, took questions on The Trailbreaker Thursday morning. (Submitted by NWTHSSA)

N.W.T. health officials say once the current wave of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has passed, the N.W.T. will look at reopening its border to leisure travellers.

Dr. André Corriveau, the territory's deputy chief public health officer, and Scott Robertson, the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority's COVID Response Team co-lead, took questions from residents on The Trailbreaker's regular call-in show Thursday morning.

Corriveau said there is a plan in the works to allow leisure travel again, but it isn't the right time for that yet.

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"Our system is very fragile, and to allow more people to travel in our communities ... It's not about bringing COVID up in the territories any more, but there is a lot of illness circulating in our communities. We just want to wait a little bit," he said.

"We're waiting for the wave to subside somewhat."

Corriveau was responding to a call from Rob Warburton, the president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, to reopen the border because local businesses are on the verge of failing.

"If people in Yellowknife want a coffee shop or a hair salon to go to after this, we've got to change our approach," Warburton told CBC Wednesday, noting that "big broad strokes" moves like banning leisure travel were OK at the start of the pandemic but "seem over the top now."

Hospitalizations still rising

Though health officials believe the Omicron wave has peaked in the N.W.T., hospitalizations and ICU admissions are still rising. Those are considered a "lagging indicator" because they take longer to manifest than infections do.

"To put things in perspective, we've had almost four times as many cases since Christmas than we had had since the beginning of the pandemic," Corriveau explained.

As of Wednesday, there were 989 confirmed and active cases of COVID-19 in the N.W.T. A total of 82 people have been hospitalized, 24 have been admitted to ICU, and 15 people have died.

Robertson said the territory doesn't release specific hospitalization and ICU numbers if they're below 10, but said hospitals in the territory continue to be "very busy" dealing with COVID-19.

"I think almost every day, we have had at least one if not more ICU admissions at Stanton Hospital and have had to medevac other people south as well for COVID-related illness," he said.

Booster shots

Corriveau said the territory is still aiming to get more booster doses into the arms of residents, since the protection offered by two doses of the vaccine is waning.

He said the "great majority" of people who have had complications related to COVID-19 had two doses of the vaccine, but because the N.W.T. was early in giving out two doses, many have passed six months since their last dose.

That waning protection isn't unique to the COVID-19 vaccine, he noted. The same thing happens with the flu vaccine, but that's not usually a concern because of how seasonal influenza is.

"The fact that your protection from your vaccine in the fall is waning by the end of March, April, is not so much a concern because influenza usually disappears in the spring ... It's quite predictable from year to year," he explained.

There's no predictability with COVID-19 yet, though, he added.

"We would have liked to see a vaccine that was super long-lasting, but it's very hard for respiratory viruses."

Corriveau said the N.W.T. is in contact with Health Canada about vaccines for children as young as six months, but any decision on that is still a few weeks away.

As for booster doses for youth 12 and up, Corriveau said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization has just published its recommendations, and the N.W.T. will be moving ahead with booster doses for that age group in the coming days.

For now, the focus remains on giving second doses to children between the ages of five and 11, and giving booster doses to groups who are at risk of severe disease — those with chronic conditions, who are immunosuppressed, or who are over the age of 60.

Still aiming to end public health emergency

Corriveau said the goal is still to end the public health emergency in the N.W.T. this spring, and residents will need to "learn to live" with the virus.

"We have all learned collectively, what are the steps that need to be taken when there's a new variant or wave that's coming," he said.

He said the hope is that the N.W.T. will get to a place where people will self-govern themselves and avoid unnecessary COVID-19 risks.

"Even if there's no orders to do so, it's the prudent thing to do," he said.