The Yukon’s chief medical officer of health says COVID-19 restrictions could soon be easing – as long as Yukoners continue to get vaccinated.
“We need to hang on for a few more weeks, maybe months, but once we’re in the summer I’m quite optimistic that we’ll be able to make significant changes to our quarantine measures,” Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health told APTN News.
There have been 81 reported cases of COVID-19 in the territory and two deaths since a global pandemic was declared in March 2020.
The second death, announced yesterday, was a Yukon resident who was outside of the territory and contracted the virus near the death. They are reported to have died from unrelated reasons.
A Yukon government press release states it’s considered a “COVID-associated death.”
So far 73 per cent of eligible adult Yukoners have received their first shot of the Moderna vaccine and 63 per cent their second shot, which is closing to hitting the Yukon government’s goal of vaccinating 75 per cent of the eligible adult population.
Hanley says the Yukon is currently leading the country in vaccinations along with the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Because of the Yukon’s success, he says COVID restrictions, like rules surrounding self-isolation when entering the territory, wearing masks and limits on gatherings may soon be eased.
But he cautions “we’re not there yet.”
For instance, while there’s been fairly high vaccine uptake, it’s plateaued recently amongst adults aged 18-29.
He says one reason for that could be that younger people see themselves as low-risk of contracting the virus.
“(Young adults may think) We don’t have much COVID here so what’s the problem? The problem is that we’re still susceptible. We’re still susceptible to outbreaks, we’re still susceptible to spread,” he says.
He adds in recent weeks there has been a “trickle upwards.”
“I think people are slowly getting it,” he says.
New variants concerning
Hanley says there’s also the issue of new COVID variants which the Moderna vaccine might not protect against.
Hanley reported the first case of variant spread, B.1.1.7, on March 25. The P1 variant was reported on April 14.
“We know something about variants but we don’t know the whole story yet,” he says.
“What we do know for example, and feel pretty good about, is that with the B.1.1.7 variant, the vaccines probably provide good protection against that variant. We know less about the P1 variant. We just don’t have the evidence yet.”
As the variants have the potential to be vaccine resistant, Hanley says restrictions, especially self-isolation when entering the territory, need to stay in place for now.
He points that variant surges in other jurisdictions could spike cases if the territory opens too soon.
“Really, we need the whole world vaccinated to protect from wildly surging COVID activity,” he says.
Restrictions irking some
Despite the work being done to protect the territory, it’s not sitting well with some Yukoners.
At a protest earlier this month in Whitehorse the message was clear – enough with COVID-19 restrictions.
Despite blistery weather, around 50 people gathered outside of the territorial government’s main administration building expressing frustration with the government’s strict COVID-19 restrictions.
Many carried signs, reading “my body my choice,” “freedom of choice” and “I want some dangerous freedom.”
Clayton Thomas, who is Tahltan, says enough is enough.
“We have no COVID here and we still have all these COVID restrictions,” he says.
He’s frustrated that the restrictions are too harsh for the low number of cases in the territory.
“Doctor Hanley was saying COVID was going be with us, so it’s like ‘well, is this inevitable?’ We’re supposed to live by these rules inevitably now?” he asks.
Dr. Hanley says he can sympathize with Yukoners frustration, but is asking for everyone to hang tight.
“We all want to open up. We just have to get to the right moment to do that,” he says.
“I think the right moment will come, and it will come when we have high vaccine uptake across the population, younger to older, and when we’re on the other side of the current COVID surge.”
Chiefs backing Hanley
Yukon chiefs are voicing their support of Hanley’s measures, like Chief Doris Bill of Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
She understands people want to gather and travel, but warns the territory has limited resources if an outbreak were to occur.
For instance, the Yukon only has 15 ventilators according to government data.
“I’m tired, too, but we have to be vigilant,” she says.
“We don’t want the variant to spread in our community. We have a limited healthcare system here in the Yukon and we can’t manage a huge outbreak. If that were to happen we would have to send people south.”
She adds the restrictions that are in place is how the territory has been able to prevent more serious restrictions like lockdowns.
“We’re in the situation we’re in right now because it’s been managed well so far. We need to keep those restrictions in place and we need to work hand in hand with Dr. Hanley to ensure that all Yukoners are safe,” she says.
Chief Kristina Kane of Ta’an Kwach’an Council is also voicing her support of keeping restrictions in place
She’s encouraging Yukoners to keep getting vaccinated as it’s the way out of restrictions.”
“We really can’t afford to let our guard down right now especially with the third wave,” she says.
“We’re not out of it yet but there is hope for the future.”
Meanwhile, Hanley is encouraging Yukoners to persevere.
“Just like spring is coming, the end of the pandemic is coming. We need to do our best and hang in there. It may be a matter of weeks until we get to a really good place.”