Dr Kami Kandola addresses reporters at the NWT legislature in early 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT plans to lift travel restrictions for fully vaccinated residents in “early summer” and eradicate all pandemic restrictions by “mid to late fall,” the territory announced on Wednesday.
The precise timeline will depend on three factors. Under the territory’s newly updated Emerging Wisely pandemic recovery plan, the NWT will loosen restrictions as local and national vaccination rates increase and as the national number of new Covid-19 cases falls.
Effective immediately, outdoor gatherings of up to 200 people are allowed, an increase on the previous cap of 50. That allows summer garage sales to go ahead, while Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks music festival will be expected to seek permission for an exemption to host a larger-scale gathering in mid-July. Funerals and celebrations of life still need special approval.
The next milestone is indoor gatherings of up to 200 people, which will be allowed when the NWT hits 66 to 75-percent full vaccination coverage or 75-percent partial vaccination coverage. (Most percentage figures in the new plan refer to adult vaccination only.)
As of last weekend, the NWT’s adult vaccination rate was 62-percent full and 69-percent partial. The new Emerging Wisely estimates those rates will increase to meet the indoor gathering target by early July, after the school year ends.
“Waiting until the school year has finished will help to ensure that a level of safety remains in place for the most vulnerable population, children under 12 years old,” the territorial government said in a statement.
For many NWT residents watching isolation rules evaporate in other jurisdictions, the ability to freely travel is the big one.
The new Emerging Wisely promises that fully vaccinated NWT residents – and essential workers or anyone with an exemption – will be able to travel without any isolation once the whole of Canada reaches a partial vaccination rate of 66 to 75 percent, and once the seven-day average of Canada’s national daily new case count is below 1,000.
The latest Canada-wide figures show a national partial vaccination rate among adults of 61 percent. The seven-day average case count nationwide has come down from more than 8,000 in March and April to less than 2,000 at the start of June.
Emerging Wisely predicts the targets to drop isolation for fully vaccinated residents will be met by “early summer,” without precisely defining that term. Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, said she expected the seven-day average to be below 1,000 in the coming week or two.
If you are partially vaccinated, you’ll still have to isolate for eight days then receive a negative Covid-19 test, even once isolation is lifted for those with full vaccination. If you’re not vaccinated, you’ll need to isolate for 10 days on your return to the NWT, as will your household.
There was no specific mention of parents of unvaccinated children aged under 12. Those children currently have no approved vaccine available. The new Emerging Wisely appears to suggest that, when isolation rules ease, those parents would be obliged to isolate for 10 days with their children after travelling outside the NWT.
“It will be whoever’s the least vaccinated,” said Dr Kandola at a news conference on Wednesday, confirming everyone would have to isolate until day 10 if you’re a fully vaccinated parent with unvaccinated children.
She said an outbreak in Yellowknife in May had shown unvaccinated children could still transmit the virus to household members, and fully immunized people still picked up the virus.
Kandola said mandatory indoor masking rules in place in Yellowknife and nearby communities would be lifted once the school year ends.
When can family visit?
Tourism can resume in full by late summer or early fall, the NWT government predicts in the newly updated document. That includes leisure travel in its broader sense, such as family members coming to visit. (There are already ways to apply for exemptions if family reunification is considered urgent.)
The change to allow leisure travellers freedom of movement in the territory will take place once the NWT has 75-percent full vaccination, Canada’s seven-day average is below 1,000 new cases, and there is nationwide 66 to 75-percent full vaccination coverage. Currently, seven percent of adult Canadians are fully vaccinated.
The document states anyone coming into the NWT once tourism is allowed “must follow the same self-isolation requirements as residents,” suggesting their requirement to isolate will depend on their vaccination status.
Lastly, the new Emerging Wisely projects all restrictions will be lifted by “mid to late fall” 2021.
For that to happen, the document states, the NWT must hit 75-percent full vaccination among anyone aged 12 and over, and also hit 66 to 75-percent partial vaccination among the entire population. Canada must have a seven-day average of fewer than 1,000 new cases, and there must be 66 to 75-percent full vaccination nationwide.
Premier Caroline Cochrane, in a statement, cautioned that the rough dates given in the new Emerging Wisely are forecasts only, and the metrics matter more: hitting local and national vaccination rates, and case counts, will determine when the NWT moves forward.
That comes after the last Emerging Wisely was criticized for what some residents saw as a moving of the goalposts: even when the plan’s targets appeared to have been hit, restrictions did not change. The NWT government said that was because information had changed since the plan was first published – for example, variants of concern had emerged.
The new Emerging Wisely, Cochrane said, is “an evidence-based plan built on data, rather than firm dates, and supports our efforts to ensure we make the best decisions for our residents.”
The premier continued: “With this new plan, we are positioned to respond to the pandemic’s evolving nature and ease restrictions as conditions and information allow, enhance restrictions as required, and target restrictions as necessary.”
Kandola said: “I am pleased to see vaccination levels rising and Covid-19 cases decreasing in other jurisdictions. You have done your part well, and we need to take cautious steps toward easing restrictions so that we can continue to keep our communities and residents safe.”
The full Emerging Wisely document includes a caution that, should a new variant of concern emerge or the situation change for the worse, an update may be required.
For example, Kandola said, she would “stop and look at what’s happening” if daily new case counts across Canada moved back above 1,000 having dipped beneath it. Depending on the trigger of that increase – for example, a fourth wave or a new variant – Kandola said she may need to “reconsider” some aspects of the gradual recovery.
The full document also contains a range of additional, more specific measures in certain situations, such as requiring Covid-19 tests on day one and day 14 for people travelling into small communities once isolation requirements are eased.
Kandola also said she expects schools to fully reopen to in-person learning in the fall.
How do I keep track of the metrics?
The new Emerging Wisely’s reliance on vaccination and case count data means tracking those numbers will be an important means of figuring out how close we are to the easing of more restrictions.
You can find NWT vaccination data on the territorial government’s website. Select Vaccinations, then Coverage from the top menu. The big figures on that page show adult rates of full and partial vaccination for the NWT, which will help to determine when restrictions on indoor gatherings and leisure travel into the NWT are lifted.
You can find Canada-wide vaccination data on the federal government’s website. The key figures from an NWT perspective are Canada’s partial vaccination rate for people aged 18 and over, and the full vaccination rate for people aged 18 and over.
The daily number of new Covid-19 cases in Canada – not quite the same as the seven-day average, but a useful guide – is shown on this page. A chart of the seven-day average is shown on this page.
Those Canada-wide numbers will help to determine when fully vaccinated NWT residents can travel without isolating, when leisure travel into the NWT can resume, and when all restrictions can be lifted.