First Nations in Yukon taking precaution during COVID-19 outbreak

Territory hit with dozens of cases over last week and a half.

First Nations in the Yukon are taking precautions against another outbreak of the COVID-19 virus that has hit the territory.

Two cases are in the small community of Carcross, about an hour outside Whitehorse which has closed its doors and only allowing essential services to be open.

Chief Lynda Dickson says her citizens are concerned.

“I think everybody’s a little bit scared, a bit confused knowing it’s in Carcross,” she told APTN News.

Dickson says the closure was necessary due to the community’s vaccination numbers.

“We don’t know the exact numbers right at the moment but they were a little on the low side,” she said.

“We have a lot of elders who have decided not to get vaccinated for whatever personal reason they have…We are trying to encourage citizens to get vaccinated.”

In regards to the outbreak getting worse, Dickson said “anything is possible” with the P.1 variant.

“We have to be vigilant,” she said.

Other Yukon First Nations are also taking precautions.

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, the Yukon’s most northern community, issued a release declaring COVID-19 risk is high in the community. The release states risk is high when there are 40 plus cases in Whitehorse and/or active cases in Old Crow.

The release says there is mandatory measures in place in the community like a curfew that is in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., travel into the community is strictly prohibited unless authorized by council and gatherings are restricted to a two household bubble.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in Haines Junction have also put out a release asking for people to wait to visit the community until the outbreak subsides.

Outbreak in the territory

For months the Yukon has been a leading jurisdiction when it comes to low COVID-19 case counts and high vaccine uptake.

But in just under a span of two weeks, the territory has jumped from relaxing restrictions to grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is our first wide spread outbreak and it has stripped anything we’ve seen before,” Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley said at a press conference on June 16.

“Just at the point we were at an end of sight and ready for more relaxation, this hit us.”

Since early June cases have skyrocketed, with as many as 16 new cases being reported overnight.

There are currently 54 active cases including one probable case and two out of territory cases, which is the highest number of active cases ever reported.

Seven cases are in Yukon’s rural communities while the rest are in Whitehorse.

Yukon government reported one person died from the disease on June 14, which is the third confirmed COVID death in the territory.

Most cases are linked to a graduating class at Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse, two classes at Elijah Smith Elementary School and young adults socializing at bars and parties.

Eleven cases are confirmed to be the P.1 variant of concern and it is presumed all recent cases are also variant cases.

According to a government release on June 16 when case counts were lower, three people are partially vaccinated, thirty-three people are unvaccinated and seventeen are under investigation.

Two people were also reported to be fully vaccinated.

Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Catherine Elliot said a press conference on June 14 that it is possible for fully vaccinated people to get the virus if they are in prolonged contact with a positive case. She said these people typically report mild symptoms and remain protected from more serious complications.

In light of the outbreak, Yukon government announced it will be ramping up its Civil Emergency Measures Act (CEMA) enforcement capacity into the long weekend and coming weeks.

This includes bringing on additional staff to manage the expected increase in complaints, increasing the presence of officers and inspectors who are able to lay charges under CEMA as well as arranging for officers and inspectors to visit local businesses, workplaces and mine sites to ensure compliance with COVID-19 orders.

Travel exemption short lived

Residents of N.W.T.’s Beaufort Delta region are also feeling the sting of Yukon’s outbreak.

People living in remote communities in the Delta like Inuvik and Tuktoyaktut commonly travel the Dempster highway to stock up on supplies and see family.

Ken Kyikavichik, Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, pushed for a travel exemption with the Yukon so Gwich’in peoples living in the Delta region could go to the Yukon without having to self-isolate and vice-versa.

“People generally were pleased that they had the ability to travel into the Yukon. Some did get over there,” he said.

“There were plans being made for other trips in the near future for people to get over and see family and friends, do a little shopping and get work done on their vehicles.”

However, the exemption has since been suspended.

Kyikavichik said people are understanding.

“Naturally people are disappointed but understandably that would be required. We always maintained we need to be prepared to close the exemption on short notice if there was another outbreak in N.W.T.,” he said referencing a COVID outbreak at a Yellowknife high school last month.

Kyikavichik said he is concerned about the outbreak spreading to the Beaufort Delta though he’s confident high vaccination rates in the region will act as a safety net.

“In fact some of our communities are amongst the highest not only in the N.W.T but the North, so it is helpful and we are comforted by the fact that our communities have done a great job of vaccinating themselves,” he said.

Youth at Risk

Many of the unvaccinated cases are reported to be high schoolers who have just been given access to the Pfizer vaccine this month.

Youth vaccine uptake numbers have not been made public, though acting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Catherine Eliot said at a press conference on June 14 that the numbers “are not significant.”

Mathieya Alatini, COVID coordinator for Council of Yukon First Nations, says young people are concerned and high school students attending grad activities at the Porter Creek school are isolating at home and monitoring for symptoms.

“Many youth that I know that attended the Porter Creek graduation ceremony are taking this very seriously… Sad to say I know individuals who have tested positive from those activities,” she said.

She said there is also concern for youth who have only had their first vaccine, as they are only be 30 per cent protected against the virus.

She’s encouraging all eligible youth to get vaccinated.

“We want youth to have fully healthy lives, continue to do athletics, to do all those things. We’re seeing in the rest of Canada there is long term COVID impacts and why wouldn’t you want to do something that reduces your risk of long term health impacts?” she said.

Top doctor says no need for panic

Hanley said he is concerned that the virus is targeting unvaccinated young people and expects to see case number grow.

I suspect that in the coming days we will continue to see additional cases that will likely number in  the dozens and may reach hundreds,” he said.

However, he said there’s no need for panic thanks to the territory’s high vaccination uptake. As of June 14, 80 per cent of eligible Yukoners have received their first shot of the Moderna vaccine and 72 percent their second.

Hanley mentioned 90 per cent of elders were fully vaccinated.

“We are not going to see our hospitals fill up with COVID patients as the past majority of young people even with variant COVID-19 disease will do okay,” he said.

“We know that this outbreak, although affecting many, will eventually peak and end.”

He said his concentration will be on protecting the vulnerable – not reintroducing lockdowns or travel restrictions.

“That doesn’t mean we have to shut down society. It doesn’t mean we shut down businesses. That’s not where we’re seeing risks.”

There has been a total of 136 confirmed cases in the Yukon since the beginning of the pandemic.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.

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