NWT residents will learn how the territory plans to start loosening Covid-19 restrictions on Wednesday next week, Dr Kami Kandola said on Thursday evening.
Briefing a committee of MLAs, the territory’s chief public health officer did not provide much detail about the new version of her office’s Emerging Wisely reopening plan – but did strongly suggest vaccination rates will be at its heart.
Vaccine uptake territory-wide will be a key indicator, Dr Kandola said: if more NWT residents are fully vaccinated, the territory will be better-positioned to lift restrictions on higher-risk activities.
She said the new Emerging Wisely will do away with the existing phased approach, meaning the territory will technically never get beyond phase two of the initial four-phase Emerging Wisely under which it is currently operating. Phase two has been in place since June last year.
So far, the NWT has had four hospitalizations from Covid-19 and no deaths.
Launch of a new Emerging Wisely has shifted several times. Initially anticipated in late April or early May, it was then moved to the end of May after an outbreak of Covid-19 in Yellowknife before being pushed to the first week of June, then the week beginning June 7. Thursday marked the first time a definitive date had been given.
“We still want to keep the NWT safe,” said Kandola, “while at the same time opening up as much as possible.”
Kandola said the NWT already meets the base vaccination target for easing restrictions on outdoor gatherings, which will be the first change made. That will allow Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks music festival to go ahead, she said, alongside events like farmers’ markets.
If everyone who already has a first vaccine dose gets their second dose, Kandola said, the territory would be in a position to meet the new Emerging Wisely’s target for lifting restrictions on indoor gatherings.
“There are a lot of measures we can put in place with people who’ve already chosen to get vaccinated,” she told MLAs.
However, an end to the NWT’s travel restrictions still appears significantly further away.
“It would be important to have as high a coverage as possible,” said Kandola on Thursday without specifying what the vaccination target for that will be. “Lifting travel restrictions will allow increased risk to vulnerable communities,” she said.
The overall message on Thursday was clear: the NWT needs more people to get fully vaccinated, or else progress will take longer.
That raised questions among some regular MLAs.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, said: “I’m concerned to see how the vaccination rates have plateaued and how we’re going to get over that hump.”
The NWT government’s data suggests it has taken a month for the territory to move from 56-percent full vaccination among adults to 61 percent. Several communities, particularly in the Tłı̨chǫ and Sahtu regions, are struggling to generate enthusiasm for vaccination among residents who have not yet received a shot. The territory’s health department is now spending money helping communities to launch campaigns targeting increased vaccination.
If some communities lag significantly behind others, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler asked, “is that going to impede the rest of the territory moving forward in this plan?”
She was effectively told yes. Kandola told MLAs: “We would have to look at the territorial average to relax the restrictions.”
The chief public health officer said the new Emerging Wisely would have a “stronger focus on personal risk mitigation and guidance.”
“These measures have been instrumental in protection of the public. We know they have taken a toll,” she said of the existing Emerging Wisely’s restrictions.
“The goal is to remove restrictions slowly and safely.”