The Northwest Territories government is hoping to end its Covid-19 public health emergency this spring, changing the way it responds to outbreaks.
During a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon, health minister Julie Green said planning is underway to transfer the services currently provided by the Covid Secretariat to the health department once public health orders end. Before that happens, she said there will be smaller changes like the return of leisure travel in the NWT.
While the territorial government had previously planned to welcome tourists back in December, it decided against doing so as Covid-19 cases surged.
“This state that we’re in is dynamic, as it has been throughout the last two years,” Green said. “We are definitely entering a transition phase, which we’re currently preparing for.”
The NWT government declared a territory-wide state of emergency for the first time in mid-March 2020. It gives territorial ministers and the chief public health officer additional powers to enact measures like travel restrictions and gathering limits.
Some temporary restrictions implemented in response to a recent wave of Omicron cases are set to end in many communities after January 30. Deputy chief public health officer Dr André Corriveau said the territory is currently on track to resume some physical activities deemed high-risk at that time, although capacity limits may continue. More details are expected later this week.
Managing Covid-19 with ‘less reliance on public health orders’
Students in many communities returned to in-person learning this week, amid mixed reaction from parents and teachers.
Public health officials have said the benefits of doing so outweigh the potential harms of Covid-19.
Dr Corriveau said not being able to access in-school supports has “significant adverse impacts” on children’s mental wellbeing and social development. He added evidence suggests the majority of Covid-19 infections in children occur in the home or elsewhere in the community rather than the “structured classroom environment” where measures are in place to reduce transmission.
“We’re facing a challenge of having to learn to live with Covid-19 and to manage personal and community-level of risks with less reliance on public health orders,” he said, adding that immunization continues to be the most effective protection against severe outcomes from Covid-19.
On Wednesday, the territorial government launched new resources on Covid-19 vaccines for children between the ages of five and 11 and their parents including superhero comic book The Arctic Vaccinator and a colouring contest.
According to the NWT government, 57 percent of children in this age group in the territory have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. The territory began rolling out second doses for young children last week.
Shannon Barnett-Aikman, the assistant deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment, said parents who decide to keep their children home are responsible for learning from home in the short-term as teachers don’t have the resources to provide remote and in-person learning at the same time. She recommended that parents connect with their children’s school for more information on requirements.
“We’re doing our level best and utmost to ensure kids are returning to the safest environment they can,” she said. “That said, it’s definitely a shift and I recognize that will take time for students and for families and for teachers, frankly, to be comfortable as we transition into this new reality.”
Many territorial government employees also returned to in-person work this week. The Legislative Assembly, meanwhile, recently delayed its upcoming sitting by three weeks until Febraury 21.
Dr Corriveau said workplaces are “not necessarily” high-risk environments as many employers have implemented measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, adding many territorial employees are vaccinated. He said data indicates most clusters of infections are the result of gatherings or within households.
“The benefits of bringing people back to their workplace whenever possible are greater than the risk associated with it,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Legislative Assembly said the speaker of the house decided to postpone the upcoming session as some MLAs are required to travel from remote communities as well as Fort Smith and Inuvik where residents are advised to continue studying and working from home due to community spread and increasing caseloads.