COVID-19’s fourth wave appears to be flattening in much of Canada, which is a “reason for optimism,” says the country’s top doctor Theresa Tam.
However, that’s not the case in the Northwest Territories.
“The statistics speak for themselves … we are unfortunately leading the country in per capita cases of COVID,” said Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, territorial medical director for the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.
The Northwest Territories currently has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country with 926 per 100,000 residents as of Thursday. Alberta, which has been in the national spotlight for weeks, is second highest with 416 cases per 100,000 residents. Saskatchewan is next with 387 cases per 100,000.
While much of the country has been fixated on the pandemic in Wild Rose Country and neighbouring Saskatchewan, their northern cousin has been seeing case counts and hospitalizations rise since mid-August.
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The territory, which has a population of roughly 45,000 people, reported 51 new cases on Thursday to bring the total number of cases seen since mid-August to 1,296. Since the beginning of the pandemic last March, the region has logged 1,411 cases in total.
To date, six people with the virus have died. A total of 47 people have been hospitalized since the pandemic began, with 43 linked to the current outbreak.
“In the under-immunized regions and in the under-immunized pockets of Yellowknife, we’ve experienced a rapid and vicious spread of this Delta variant,” said Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer for the Northwest Territories.
The Northwest Territories was among the first regions to receive COVID-19 vaccines. The territory began inoculating its most vulnerable in January and continued to vaccinate its eligible population to meet projections of 75 per cent of all adults fully immunized by the end of March.
In May, the region started vaccinating young people between 12 to 17 years of age. As of Friday, 88 per cent of the eligible population is fully inoculated, data from covid19tracker.ca shows. Out of the entire population, 74 per cent is fully vaccinated.
“High rates of vaccination are excellent and obviously we should continue everything that we can to do that, but this virus finds those vulnerable pockets and gets into them quickly,” said Pegg.
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While the region had largely managed to fend off COVID-19, the situation began to change this summer. In June, the territory announced plans to ease protective measures and travel restrictions based on vaccination and case rates.
In August, more than 12,000 travellers visited the region and by mid-month a superspreader event occurred, Kandola said.
Shortly after, the region introduced a territory-wide mask mandate, and the Canadian Rangers and Canadian Red Cross nurses were deployed to help. Masks were required in some areas during previous outbreaks, but never throughout the region. They’ve always been recommended, however.
Public health measures, like travel restrictions and gathering limits, are back in place, Kandola said.
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But one of the things they’re noticing is some breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, primarily among those who have close and prolonged contact with infected individuals.
Some fully vaccinated seniors, who have other medical conditions, have shown up in hospital, Kandola said.
“I want to speak to the other provinces and territories … they’re pretty much eight to 12 weeks behind where we’re going to be,” she said.
“Please just don’t rely on vaccines, but rely on all the other public health measures that have worked in the past, especially for the dead of winter.”
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To protect its most vulnerable, the Northwest Territories is administering booster doses to people aged 75 and older right now, with plans to expand that coverage, Kandola added.
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While there have been breakthrough cases, the majority of the region’s hospitalizations have been in the unvaccinated, Pegg said.
“Yes, there have been some breakthrough cases and yes, there have been some breakthrough hospitalizations, primarily among people who may not have mounted a robust immune response to the two doses,” she said.
“But again, the majority of cases that are occurring in vaccinated people are mild or even asymptomatic, and I think the most important thing to remember is that the rate of infection in the unvaccinated is much higher than it is in the vaccinated.”
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While Canada overall is starting to see infections level off, for the Northwest Territories, the focus is on calming the surge.
“We hope we get the outbreak under control,” Kandola said.
“We are in a delicate balance here in N.W.T in trying to curb the transmission so that we’re not overstretching our health-care system.”
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