Minister of Health and Social Services Julie Green said that the territorial government continues to recommend that as many eligible people as possible get vaccinated, but there is no set target vaccination rate.
Her comments responded to a series of questions from Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson in the legislative assembly on May 28 as he sought clarity on the GNWT’s direction around managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Green said while a vaccination target rate for adults is important, the chief public health officer has to take other factors into account account when it comes to easing restrictions. These include keeping an eye on case counts and threats of variants of concern elsewhere in the country.
“We do not at this point have a specific number,” Green said. “We’ve been saying to people that they should be getting vaccinated if at all possible. The higher the vaccination rate, the better off we all are.”
Last March, Green called into question the GNWT’s earlier set goal of having 75 per cent of all adults fully vaccination by summer 2021.
To date, 60 per cent of NWT residents 18 years old and older have been fully vaccinated, according to the NWT COVID-19 Dashboard.
Johnson said having the 75 per cent target as a goal for the territory represented, for residents, “a light at the end of the tunnel” and something they could look forward to.
“I recognize at that time (March) there were changing signs with some variants, but I believe people now need a vaccination target,” he said. “Getting over this hurdle of 60 per cent vaccination, people want to know if we get here, it will actually encourage more people to get vaccinated.”
The minister pointed out that after the NJ Macpherson School outbreak began in April, the GNWT has seen how vulnerable unvaccinated people are since almost all cases at the school involved children.
“The median age was eight and half years old so they are not eligible for vaccines at this point,” she said.
“So having a vaccination rate is fine but there are pockets of people who are not vaccinated who we have to take into consideration as well.”
‘Not in lockdown’
Johnson also asked if residents are going to be allowed to take non-essential trips in the near future, providing they are fully vaccinated.
Green replied saying people are free to do so already, they just have to ensure they self-isolate.
“The fact is we’re not in lock down here,” she said. “Members of this house have traveled during the time that non-essential travel has not been recommended.
“So it’s not really true to say that people are stuck here. People have made the choice to travel.”
Currently residents are recommended not to take non-essential trips in and out of the territory and are advised against inter-provincial travel.
The Emerging Wisely document, published by the territorial government in June 2020, still states COVID-19 restrictions, like restricted travel, will remain in place until a vaccine or treatment is available.
Johnson stressed that much of the context around when that document was drafted last year — including fears about the health care system being overwhelmed — now appear irrelevant a year later.
“There was talk of waves, there was talk of ICU beds and ventilators, he said. “Given that we are now at a 60 per cent vaccination target, much of that language has disappeared. So I’m confused as to what the main goal we are trying to mitigate is.”
The minister admitted that the document is due for an update but questions around risk assessment and how public health restrictions are eased will be for Kandola to answer.
Green said that the phased approach from the original Emerging Wisely document will be removed and the easing of travel and border restrictions will be discussed in relation to COVID rates decreasing and vaccinations rising in the rest of the country.
“Overall vaccine uptake in the NWT will be a key, internal factor to determine what measures can be eased.”
Since May 5, when the GNWT expanded its vaccine program to youth, 1,200 young people from Yellowknife, Dettah, N’dilo and Behchoko have received their first dose of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine.