As Yellowknife prepares to tighten gathering restrictions amid well over 100 active Covid-19 cases, the territorial government is considering mandatory vaccination and vaccine passports.
Earlier this month, the NWT Seniors’ Society asked the GNWT to look into mandating Covid-19 vaccines for public employees. In a written response, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said the government was “actively researching the feasibility” of making vaccination mandatory for territorial employees that provide front-line services to vulnerable people.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane said the GNWT is now consulting Indigenous governments, MLAs, and the Union of Northern Workers about implementing a vaccine mandate. She promised more information within the next week.
“The vaccination mandate is something that has come up, it’s been a discussion across the premiers’ tables across jurisdictions. We’re just currently looking at it now,” she said.
“The reality is that the outbreak happened and none of us planned for it.”
Last month, federal officials stated their intention to require all commercial air travellers to provide proof of vaccination before boarding a flight.
The Canadian government also recently announced plans to introduce a standardized, digital vaccine passport for all Canadians planning to travel abroad.
With the federal election over, Cochrane said the territory will continue working with the re-elected Liberal government to ensure the NWT has the resources to implement a Covid-19 passport for travel. Cochrane said the territory is also working to make sure all residents will still be able to access medical travel.
“We are very reliant on transportation,” she noted.
As for an NWT-specific vaccine passport, Cochrane said earlier this month the territorial government wasn’t considering it and planned to wait for a country-wide system.
On Wednesday, Cochrane said an NWT vaccine passport would require a lot of consultation before it is approved.
“It’s going to affect people, it’s going to affect businesses, and we need to make sure we get it right when we do it,” Cochrane said.
Across the country, Covid-19 vaccine requirements and options for proof of vaccination vary.
Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec have all mandated proof of vaccination to enter certain public establishments and events, and launched their own vaccine passports. Saskatchewan plans to do so by October 1.
In the NWT, residents can request access to their Covid-19 immunization records, but there is no vaccine passport with a QR code available as in some jurisdictions.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson has been among those pushing for the territory to require proof of vaccination to enter bars and restaurants, saying it’s a better alternative to restrictions on capacity or similar public health orders.
On Wednesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola announced stricter gathering restrictions for Yellowknife, Dettah, and Ndilǫ. The measures begin just before midnight on Friday and last for at least 10 days in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Several local business owners expressed dismay at the decision, which may have the effect of forcing many businesses to temporarily close. While up to 10 people can now be in a non-essential business at a time, that may not be enough for establishments that rely on serving a significant number of customers at once.
Johnson said a Covid-19 vaccine passport would be more effective.
“I am frustrated that restrictions still don’t make a distinction based on vaccine status,” he wrote. “Seems all round better policy to keep non-essential businesses open yet implement a vaccine passport.”
Health staff plead again for vaccination
The NWT currently has the highest number of active Covid-19 cases per capita in Canada, and the territory’s health resources are feeling the strain. As of Wednesday night, there were 236 active cases of Covid-19 in the NWT. The territory announced its second death from Covid-19 on Monday.
Health officials have long said vaccination is the best defence against Covid-19.
Scott Robertson, the NWT health authority’s Covid-19 operations co-lead, described the despair of staff having to send unvaccinated people into intensive care for treatment.
“What’s really tough for us, especially as healthcare workers, is when people go into the hospital, into ICU, who are not immunized and we could have done something to help prevent this,” he said.
“If you’re not currently immunized, please, please consider doing it, if not for yourself then to protect our communities, our Elders, and other people that are vulnerable.”
According to the latest statistics, 63 percent of the territory’s Covid-19 cases since January 2021 have been among unvaccinated individuals while 7.4 percent were partially vaccinated and 28.2 percent fully vaccinated. The vaccination status of the remaining cases is unknown.
Across the NWT, 77 percent of residents over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated while 82 percent are at least partially vaccinated, although those rates vary by community.
Currently only Kakisa – the smallest community in the territory, with an estimated population of 36 – has vaccinated all residents over the age of 12. Wrigley has the lowest vaccination rate at 50 percent.
Anyone over the age of 12 in the NWT can access either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines.
Pfizer-BioNTech this week said trials show its vaccine is safe and effective for children aged five to 11. Health Canada is expected to complete an independent scientific review before the vaccine is authorized for children under 12 in Canada.
Correction: September 23, 2021 – 11:11 MT. This article initially stated a letter to the NWT Seniors’ Society was written by Premier Caroline Cochrane. The letter, in fact, was written by finance minister Caroline Wawzonek.