The Northwest Territories and Yukon will not create a “travel bubble” during the Covid-19 pandemic, the NWT government confirmed.
For weeks, residents of the NWT’s Beaufort Delta region in particular – who have a road connection to the Yukon – had been lobbying for the creation of a bubble similar to that briefly in place between the NWT and Nunavut last year.
A bubble would allow travel to and from the NWT and Yukon without the need to isolate for two weeks.
However, the NWT’s premier and senior health officials said no such bubble would be possible between the territories.
Instead, people will be able to request exemptions from isolation on a case-by-case basis.
In the legislature on Tuesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane said the Yukon was about to reopen its border with British Columbia. That act would make it hard for the NWT and Yukon to operate a bubble, she said, given the increased risk that would pose to the NWT.
Cochrane said Yukon Premier Sandy Silver “would not be OK with us closing the border when they open up to British Columbia.”
She continued: “In conversations, it will only be a couple of weeks, he’s assuming, before they open up to British Columbia. That is the underlying factor that is not good news for us.”
Instead, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola told reporters on Wednesday, exemptions will be used – as they now are with Nunavut travellers.
“During the first phase of the pandemic we had a bubble concept with Nunavut. As time went on, we realized that not all communities are equally at risk,” Kandola said.
“With Nunavut, even though they have an outbreak ongoing in Arviat, the remaining Nunavut communities are really low-risk. So we have opted for an exemption process where people still have to submit an isolation plan but they can request an exemption.
“People who have family in the northern [Yukon] communities that are low-risk, such as Old Crow and Mayo, they may be completely at no risk. And so the request for an exemption can be a lot more feasible. We’re looking at that option.
“Nothing’s in place right now, we’re just engaging in dialogue and seeing how we can work this out. We are impressed with Yukon’s vaccine rollout and how they have managed to keep cases low so far.”
‘Moment is not now’ for change
Cochrane said the NWT also remained concerned that the vaccine’s impact on virus transmission is still not fully understood.
While it’s clear that the vaccine protects the vast majority of people against the worst effects of Covid-19 – and, in many cases, means not getting sick at all – there remains little evidence regarding whether vaccinated people can still pass the virus to others without becoming ill themselves.
But Lesa Semmler, the Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA, told the legislature residents in her district were becoming frustrated at the limits on their movement while exceptions were made elsewhere.
“How long are we going to be in this public health emergency?” Semmler asked.
“The people of the NWT, the Beaufort Delta, have a voice too – just like the people at the mines, and they are given exception after exception.
“Do the residents who have been vaccinated have an option to challenge this public health emergency if they choose to?”
Next week, the NWT will mark an entire year of life under a territorial public health emergency.
Julie Green, the health minister, said there was no likelihood of that lifting soon. She did not directly answer Semmler’s question regarding the ability of residents to challenge the existence of the emergency, which must be newly declared by the minister every two weeks.
Green said it was the chief public health officer’s view that “a public health emergency still exists,” adding that vaccination levels in southern Canada would have to significantly improve before that changes.
“The NWT is now over 40 percent vaccinated but the number for the whole of Canada is 1.42 percent. There is not anything like equality of vaccination across the country,” said Green. “There is still community transmission of Covid-19 in some southern jurisdictions and that’s something we’ve worked very hard to prevent here.
“We don’t have definitive answers about whether [the Moderna vaccine] also stops transmission – whether, as a vaccinated person, I can still carry the virus with me and pass that on.
“We are very interested in making the changes the member is talking about, we understand people are fed up with isolation and would like to be reunited with their friends and family, their former lives. But that moment is not now.”