As the clock strikes midnight on Friday morning, all public health restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic will lift in the Northwest Territories.
Beginning on April 1, the territory’s public health emergency will officially end some two years after it was declared and, with it, the NWT government’s power to enact sweeping public health measures.
That means wearing a mask indoors, reporting when you test positive for Covid-19, and isolating when sick will be recommended only and will no longer be enforced by law. Businesses and organizations may, however, continue to require that customers wear masks on their premises.
In an update to its website on Thursday, the YK1 school district said masks will no longer be required for students or staff in classrooms from Friday. The district said masks will remain required in communal areas of schools and buses for the time being.
The City of Yellowknife plans to drop mask requirements on city buses from Friday.
Many other Covid-19 restrictions, like limits on gatherings, proof of vaccination requirements, and restrictions on leisure travel, were already lifted in the territory earlier this month.
While all restrictions are ending, public health officials warn that people are still at risk of contracting Covid-19 and should take precautions. There are currently 630 active cases of Covid-19 reported across the territory, the majority in the Yellowknife and Beaufort Delta regions.
“The end of the public health emergency and removal of all the public health orders means that the residents will be responsible for making smart decisions to protect themselves and their fellow community members,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola told reporters on Thursday.
“Some of your friends and neighbours may have a different risk tolerance and choose to continue wearing a mask, or wish to avoid high-risk activities or large gatherings. It is important to respect those decisions and react with kindness wherever possible.”
Dr Kandola recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces, particularly if they are at high risk of severe health outcomes.
Anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 or has symptoms should stay at home until they are symptom-free, she said, then minimize contact with other people and wear a mask in public for an additional 10 days. This will not be mandatory, nor enforced.
Anyone who is sick and at increased risk should seek medical attention early and get tested for Covid-19 as they may be eligible for additional treatment, Kandola added.
Kandola said while case numbers will fluctuate, the majority of current cases are related to the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which has been shown to have less severe outcomes than previous variants.
That, she said, means the territory’s health system will not be overwhelmed by the impact of Covid-19 even without public health measures in place.
Of the 11,309 confirmed cases of Covid-19 reported in the territory since the pandemic began, Kandola said about 9,000 have been associated with the Omicron variant. She said, however, the true number of cases may be double that figure as there were likely many more cases that went undetected or unreported.
As the public health emergency ends, the NWT government is in the process of dismantling the Covid-19 Secretariat. Core employees will remain to answer general questions on the 8-1-1 hotline but staff will no longer be required for contact tracing, operating isolation centres, or greeting travellers at airports and highway borders.
Sonya Saunders, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs’ assistant deputy minister of regional operations, said the territory will now focus on enhancing regional capacity to prepare for outbreaks, including hiring one regional emergency management representative.
“In the event that there are future outbreaks, and anticipating that wildfires and floods are expected to become more frequent and severe due to climate change, it is more important now than ever that Maca take these steps,” Saunders said.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 106 hospitalizations, 29 intensive care admissions, and 21 deaths related to Covid-19 in the NWT.
As of February 23, 8,038 people had stayed in an NWT Covid-19 isolation centre and 132,120 self-isolation plans had been submitted.
As of that date, compliance and enforcement officials had issued 67 summary offence tickets for violating public health orders – each carrying a fine of $1,725 – along with two $500 fines for knowingly providing false information to a public health officer.
One business was issued a fine of $5,175 for allegedly violating indoor capacity limits. The Monkey Tree Pub is still awaiting trial to fight the ticket.