The NWT’s target of vaccinating 75 percent of its eligible population against Covid-19 may change, the territory’s health minister says.
Julie Green said the development of variants of the virus responsible for Covid-19 – and uncertainty over the extent to which the virus can still be transmitted despite vaccination – may mean the 75-percent target needs to change.
“That may change the immunity level we require, in communities, to say that we are fully vaccinated,” the minister told the legislature on Monday.
“I think the 75-percent rate is now in question to some extent,” Green said. “The whole business of ‘how much is enough’ is really up for debate.”
The minister’s comments come as the NWT faces sustained pressure to issue clearer guidance about when its Covid-19 restrictions will change.
The NWT remains in phase two of Emerging Wisely, the territorial government document that has governed the territory’s public health restrictions for most of the past year.
Emerging Wisely states that rapid testing, contact tracing, and limited or no community spread must be in place to move to phase three – which primarily lifts limits on outdoor gatherings – while a “second surge of infections” in southern Canada and the United States must be over.
The lifting of all restrictions is forecast by Emerging Wisely to take place when a vaccination program has been successfully implemented for seniors and at-risk groups.
The south is arguably well into a third or fourth wave and all of the other criteria for phase three and beyond appear to have been met, but the NWT has maintained that the risk from the south and from variants of the virus remains too great to make changes.
Firm timeline ‘very difficult’
Emerging Wisely is to be reviewed in April, the territory previously announced. The GNWT’s website states the document was last revised in June 2020.
Green said on Monday that even if the existing target of 75-percent vaccination is maintained, no NWT community has yet met that target according to GNWT data. (Some communities have independently stated they have done so.)
According to Green, the latest NWT figures are 58-percent coverage with one dose of the Moderna vaccine and 36-percent coverage with two doses.
Responding to questions from Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, the minister said: “Putting a firm timeline on when we’re going into phase three is very difficult to do.”
Green said she expects Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, to revise Emerging Wisely in April.
“It will be a living document,” said Green, borrowing terminology from Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, who had urged the territory to create such a document to help businesses plan.
“There are so many variables that go into the chief public health officer’s decision about risk assessment that it needs to be and will be a living document,” Green continued.
Rationale ‘by the end of April’
Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, asked if the territory was likely to introduce community-by-community restrictions that allow some areas to open up – or at least lift gathering limits – if they hit the target vaccination rate.
“If you end up with Ulukhaktok with a 75-percent vaccination rate and they want to get back to doing social activities and ease up on restrictions regarding capacities and gatherings … it would be really unfortunate to have surrounding communities held back, and it would not benefit Yellowknife to be held to the standard of a community up in the Beaufort Delta,” Cleveland told the legislature.
But Green suggested that was unlikely.
“We do not want to pit communities against each other and that’s definitely one of the risks,” the minister said.
“The variants are now on the doorstep … in the Yukon and Fort Chipewyan. It feels closer to home than ever before.
“What the chief public health officer has said historically is that a high vaccination rate will enable us to remove restrictions internally first,” Green said, referring to the likes of music festivals, family gatherings and weddings.
“And then the whole situation around the border and self-isolation will be addressed next, depending what happens in southern Canada.
“We want to give businesses as much notice as possible to be prepared to reopen, and I hope to be able to do this by the end of April.
“I appreciate that residents in the NWT want to return to normal. My hope is that the rationale will be made known to the public by the end of April.”