Top public health officials in the Northwest Territories say restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic are on track to gradually lift before the public health emergency fully ends this spring.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Dr André Corriveau, the territory’s deputy chief public health officer, said pandemic measures like restrictions on leisure travel, broad vaccine mandates, and requiring people from small communities to isolate in regional hubs, will be phased out over the “next couple of months.” He said he could not provide a more concrete timeline on when that would happen, but that details would be released in the coming weeks.
“We are turning the corner countrywide and we expect that we will be following very soon,” he said of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve learned together over the past two years what measures actually make a difference in protecting vulnerable individuals among us without having to rely on broad mandatory public health orders.”
While some Canadian provinces have indicated plans to lift public health restrictions sooner, Corriveau said the impact of the Omicron wave has been unique in the NWT and the territory’s health system is more fragile.
“I think the NWT was hit later by the Omicron variant than other parts of Canada and also we have a more dispersed population outside of Yellowknife,” Corriveau said. “As we’ve seen in the past in other types of infectious outbreaks, it is spreading at different rates and times across our region.”
Corriveau noted the territory continues to experience a plateau of active Covid-19 cases with around 100 new infections per day. He added that number is likely an underestimate of the true number of positive cases, given not everyone who may have Covid-19 gets tested or reports the results of their at-home tests to the territorial government.
Echoing comments made by territorial medical director Dr AnneMarie Pegg last month, Corriveau said while hospitalizations and deaths connected to the Omicron variant have been proportionally lower than earlier outbreaks, Omicron spreads faster and easier. That means the large number of cases is still having an impact on the territory’s health system.
Covid-19 modelling predicts the NWT will begin to see a sharp decline in cases next week.
“Of course we don’t have a perfect crystal ball but this is where we think we’re headed,” Corriveau said.
The Alberta government lifted proof of vaccination requirements and capacity limits for some venues at midnight on Tuesday, as part of its plan to ease public health measures in the province. Mask requirements in schools, and everywhere for children under the age of 12, will be lifted in Alberta on Monday.
The Saskatchewan government also recently announced the province would be ending proof of vaccination requirements on February 14, with other public health measures like masking and self-isolation requirements set to expire at the end of the month.
Calls to end public health restrictions
Some NWT residents have called for more immediate changes to public health restrictions in the North.
The president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce recently said border restrictions that hinder tourists from visiting the NWT should be lifted and it’s time that the territory shifted to a “more nuanced response” to Covid-19 outbreaks instead of sweeping public health orders.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, and Katrina Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, have publicly called for a firm date on when borders will be re-opened to tourists after the territory delayed plans to do so in December as a result of rising case numbers.
In recent weeks, protests against measures like vaccine mandates have been organized in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, in solidarity with similar protests across the country. Some attendees argue that ongoing restrictions infringe on civil liberties, and the negative impacts outweigh the benefits.
Corriveau on Wednesday, stood behind the territory’s approach to managing Covid-19 and its plan to gradually ease public health measures.
“We’re trying to go as fast as we can, balancing … the benefit of maintaining some measures versus removing them, and removing them in a sequence that will not cause a re-increase [in cases],” he said. “The last thing we want to see is having to go back to additional measures.”
Cara Zwibel, is a lawyer and the director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
She acknowledged the North has limited health care resources, and may take a different approach when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions compared to other jurisdictions in Canada. She said, however, the NWT is an outlier when it comes to continuing strict border controls.
Zwibel said policy makers should focus on what restrictions are necessary, consider how to manage Covid-19 in the long-term, and move away from broad public health measures that were introduced at the start of the pandemic.
“The fact that we are still sort-of at the place, despite having vaccines and good access to vaccines and good uptake of vaccines but we still have these pretty significant restrictions on even sort-of who we can have in our home, are concerning to me from a civil liberties perspective,” she said.
“I think there’s good arguments on all sides about whether those restrictions were justified at various points during the pandemic, but I think we’re at the point now where it’s much harder to make a good case for restrictions like that.”
Zwibel noted people have the right to peaceful protest, as long as they are not engaging in unlawful activity and there are limits to acceptable disruptions from protests. She added there are people across Canada not involved in protests who have concerns about some public health measures.
“I have spoken to people who genuinely believe in vaccines, they themselves are vaccinated, but they still don’t want to live in a country where you need to show a health credential to go to a restaurant,” she said. “I think those are legitimate things to be expressed and they’re things we need to grapple with.”
The NWT Human Rights Commission issued a statement on mandatory vaccine policies and passports in October. It highlighted that people who choose not to get vaccinated because of a personal choice are not protected under the NWT Human Rights Act and don’t have the right to be accommodated.
Charles Dent, chair of the commission, told Cabin Radio that over the past six months the commission has received about 16 calls with inquires about Covid-19 health restrictions. He said the commission is “always happy to answer people’s questions,” explain their options, or point them to other contacts that may be able to help.
Three NWT residents died of Covid-19 at home
Corriveau on Wednesday provided more details about deaths and hospitalizations related to the Omicron variant in the territory. He said of particular concern is that of the six people who have died of Omicron in the NWT, three died in their homes.
Corriveau said it’s important for people who are worried about symptoms to consult health professionals early, especially if they are at higher risk for severe outcomes from Covid-19. That includes people who have immune systems that are compromised or have long-term medical conditions.
He said he could not provide additional details about the 18 people who have died of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, like their ages, due privacy concerns given the relatively small number of deaths. He said, however, the majority of those people were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, and in some cases there were other factors involved like chronic conditions.
Of the 82 hospitalizations related to Covid-19 since the pandemic began, Corriveau said 50 were not fully vaccinated, 28 had received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, and four had received a third dose.
Twenty hospitalizations have been related to the Omicron variant.