Yukon declares public health emergency over COVID-19 pandemic

Yukon health officials on Wednesday declared a public health emergency related to COVID-19.

Schools, indoor recreation facilities to remain closed, hospital visits restricted

Yukon's Chief Medical Officer of Health Brendan Hanley and Premier Sandy Silver declare a public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, at a Wednesday briefing. Mary Tiessen offered ASL interpretation. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Yukon officials have declared a public health emergency, related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, and Premier Sandy Silver made the announcement at a news briefing on Wednesday morning in Whitehorse.

The declaration, in effect until further notice, means classes are suspended until April 15, all indoor public recreation facilities (including the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse) and libraries will be closed, and hospitals will be closed to visitors with limited exceptions. 

Hanley said the emergency declaration will allow officials to "get the information that we require to respond more effectively."

"For instance, the ability to enforce self-isolation and other quarantine measures, if they are required," he said.

There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yukon, though more than 100 people have been tested so far.

Hanley said the decision to keep schools closed after spring break was a difficult one, but one made in the best interests of parents and children.

He said Grade 12 students will still graduate, through distance education and online learning if necessary.

"Although the classes are suspended, the education goes on. This is not a closing of education, it is the suspension of live classes until after Easter."

Silver said the emergency declaration is about being proactive and adjusting to a rapidly changing situation.

"This is a responsible decision and a precautionary measure that will enable officials to respond rapidly to ensure the health and safety of Yukoners," Silver said.

"Rest assured, your government is here for you."

Government MLAs were scheduled to be in budget deliberations this month, but Hanley urged politicians to wrap that up "as soon as possible, so that the government, all government, can continue and concentrate with a focus on COVID preparations."

Health ministers in the N.W.T. and Nunavut also declared public health emergencies in their territories on Wednesday.

Testing 'taking longer than we want'

Hanley said earlier Wednesday that somewhere between 100 and 200 Yukoners have been tested for COVID-19. It's taking up to six days to get test results, Hanley said.

"It's taking a long time, and it's taking longer than we want. And that's because of a backlog of testing in B.C., where the testing is done."

In a letter to Premier Sandy Silver on Wednesday, Stacey Hassard, leader of the opposition Yukon Party, suggested it's taking longer than that for some people — up to seven to 14 days, he says — and that some Yukoners are being denied tests, despite having symptoms.

"In one case, the individual is experiencing fever, shortness of breath, cough and sore throat, and has been in direct contact with another individual who recently tested positive in British Columbia," Hassard's letter reads.

In a statement on Wednesday, opposition leader Stacey Hassard says he's heard from Yukoners who are experiencing symptoms, but have not been tested. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

"They and their partner, who is also experiencing symptoms, have been trying without success for almost a week to receive a test."

Hanley said testing is done based on certain criteria, and that the criteria change "depending on where we are in the epidemic."

He also said testing is expected to get faster in the coming days.

Rest, stay at home, get better, stay away from others, use the social distancing measures- Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health

"They [in B.C.] have been significantly ramping up their lab testing capacity, so we are expecting things to improve."

Hanley also acknowledged that Yukon's 811 health information line is being swamped with calls — but officials are working to improve the service to deal with any backlog.   

"We've heard of up to an hour and a half wait times. But if you're concerned about your own symptoms, it's still the best place to call." 

For people who don't have symptoms, but simply want more information about COVID-19, Hanley advises them to call a separate, 24-hour info line at 1-833-784-4397.

Flu going around

Hanley said there's a lot of anxiety around flu-like symptoms right now — but said people should remember that the flu is going around Yukon.

"That certainly can be confusing for people, because even though we don't have evidence that COVID is circulating, people do have symptoms that they think could be COVID — but are far more likely to be influenza."

He's asking people with flu-like symptoms to stay away from the emergency room unless those symptoms are severe, or if they're vulnerable because of underlying health conditions. And he asks people to always call 811 before going to the emergency room. 

"If you're not that sick, you don't need to be seen at all. Rest, stay at home, get better, stay away from others, use the social distancing measures that we always talk about," Hanley said.

He said Yukon is still on top of things, and preparing to deal with COVID-19 if and when it makes its way to Yukon.

"It's very important to not do too much too fast, because then that can be very disruptive for everyone. So we're measuring," he said. "Our response is measured to where we are in the epidemic." 

Written by Paul Tukker