Yellowknife 'on the brink of community spread' says N.W.T. chief public health officer

There are now 8 confirmed cases and 12 probable cases connected to N.J. Macpherson cluster. Dr. Kami Kandola said the "vast majority" of the cases are children.

There are now 8 confirmed cases, 12 probable cases, connected to N.J. Macpherson cluster

Terriorial Medical Director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, left, and N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola are expected to join The Trailbreaker Monday at 7:10 a.m. (CBC)

There are now eight confirmed cases associated with the N.J. Macpherson School outbreak announced over the weekend in Yellowknife. Another 12 probable cases have also been identified.

The update was announced by Northwest Territories public health officials on Monday while addressing the COVID-19 situation in the N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola and Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, were joined by Premier Caroline Cochrane and Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green. 

Kandola said the "vast majority" of the cases are children and that the outbreak affects "pretty much" all grade levels at the elementary school.

The case count is up from the six confirmed cases announced on Sunday. The first case was detected at the school on Saturday, along with four other probable cases closely linked to the first. That evening, a two-week closure of the school was announced by officials. On Sunday all schools in Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah were ordered closed. 

Kandola said on Monday that the community is "on the brink of community spread," but that so far the new cases being detected are connected to the same school cluster and there is still the possibility of detecting all cases connected to that cluster.

While students from N.J. Macpherson are tied to other activities, and their families have gone to other public places, like stores and restaurants, Kandola said at this time "no other school has met the definition of an outbreak."

Other schools were ordered closed out of an abundance of caution, she said, describing the move as a "circuit breaker."

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief medical officer of health, addresses reporters in the legislative assembly Monday, May 3. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

The investigation of the school outbreak is ongoing, Kandola said, adding she couldn't give details on whether the cases are related to the earlier cluster detected in Yellowknife in mid April.

"N.J. [School] is a cluster in and of itself," Kandola said. "We are currently undergoing an investigation about any links to the YK cluster."

Teens to get Pfizer soon

Minister Green said Monday that the territory will soon be getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, once it finalizes a deal with other provinces for an exchange for the vaccine.

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for those 16 years old and up and it's expected to expand to those aged 12 to 15 years old in the "near future" Green said.

Once the exchange deal is finalized, Green said more details will be announced. 

Dr. Kami Kandole, Premier Caroline Cochrane, Health Minister Julie Green and territorial medical director AnneMarie Pegg in the legislative assembly May 3. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Premier Cochrane said health staff have been working "day and night" to contain the virus, and that the territory has been prepared for this kind of situation.

"It was inevitable that we would see our own cases rise," Cochrane said.

Only those who have symptoms or have been contacted by public health should get tested, she said.

"If Public Health has not actively reached out to you, you have not been identified as a contact of a case of COVID-19," Cochrane said. "Where the OCPHO is not able to identify all contacts, it is providing public exposure notifications so people can identify themselves."

Dr. Pegg said contacts of contacts are in a "second" circle of the outbreak and that only in some circumstances are those people required to isolate. If people are a contact of a contact of the outbreak and do have symptoms, or if they've been contacted by public health, they should isolate and get tested.

"With the [testing] capacity that we have, we do need to do our very best to do the tests on the people who are most likely to be affected first," Pegg said.

Medical appointments

On Monday, services were announced to be slowing down at Stanton Territorial Hospital, as staff work on triaging appointments for patients who are currently in isolation, and deciding which appointments can be postponed until after their isolation period and which must proceed, according to a news release.

It says patients who are currently in self-isolation should connect with their provider before arriving for a booked appointment where possible.

Missed the news conference? Watch it here: 

Lab services are also closed on Monday at the hospital so that staff can be redeployed for COVID-19 testing services. The only exception is for those who are scheduled for a surgical procedure this week and were told to have lab work done on May 3 and were told by their provider to still come in. Lab services are set to resume Tuesday.

While non-essential travel in and out of Yellowknife is discouraged, Kandola said those with medical appointments should still come to the city.