Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola expressed concern following the revelation on April 8 that three recent incidents of the Covid-19 virus were found to be variant strains.
She added that preventative measures should continue to be followed strictly to avoid lockdowns and circuit-breakers common in other areas of the country.
Kandola said in a Thursday news conference with Dr. Anne Marie Pegg, the territorial medical director that three recent Covid-19 infections – two from Diavik Diamond Mine and one from an NWT resident related to international travel – are identified as a variant of concern – the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
She said the development is concerning because of how the new strain is spread.
“These new variants are highly infectious and extremely dangerous,” she said. “Widespread infection would be devastating to our health care system and our communities here in the NWT.
“While research is underway nationally and internationally to better understand the impact of these Variants of Concern – such as how they spread and the severity of illness they cause – evidence gathered to date is concerning.”
She added that evidence shows that variants of concern spread more easily to other people and that each COVID-19 infection from a variant will infect more people compared to the original virus.
Kandola added that more evidence is showing that variants are causing more severe infections among young adults as well as more hospitalizations and deaths among the age group.
“We can’t let variants gain a foothold in the NWT,” she said. “Our importation risk is real and increasing right now with COVID infections soaring across the country and specifically increases to variants.”
Public health measures must continue to be followed and people need to get vaccinated if they are able to do so, she added.
Among other measures, she reminded people to keep a physical distance of two metres of six feet apart, wash or hands “a lot,” wear a mask when in indoor spaces, keep crowds small and spaces large, stay at home when sick and calling a healthcare provider or access testing if developing symptoms of COVID-19.
People need to continue self-isolating responsibly, too, if required.
Her office has been preparing for variant cases to get to reach the territory.
“While the arrival of a variant in the NWT is not welcome, it is also not unexpected, and we have been preparing to handle them,” she said.
Border controls, travel restrictions and self-isolation requirements will remain in place to combat the new variant. Kandola said residents continuing to follow preventative measures that have been used over the past year during the pandemic are recommended to be followed.
“I know the identification of a variant of concern in our territory is going to worry some of you. That is natural and understandable,” she said.
“But I also want you to know we have the power to stop the spread of variants in their tracks.”
Vaccine program and passports
Kandola reported that as of April 3 there have been 24,103 first doses and 14,471 second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine across the NWT.
Despite the new B 1.1.7 variant, Kandola said evidence shows that Moderna remains effective.
“There is there is excellent data that shows the Moderna vaccine is effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, and we expect more information about its effectiveness against the others,” she said.
Her media briefing also touched on the need for people get a vaccine, noting that there have been zero deaths due to the Covid vaccine.
“I realize some of you may be hesitant to receive the second dose because you have heard that side effects from the vaccine are more common after the second dose,” she said.
“I want to reassure you that these side effects are usually mild, but can be moderate because they may impact people’s ability to perform their daily routine. These side effects typically last only a day or two after vaccination.”
Some residents have asked about vaccine passports, but said although the GNWT anticipates cooperating in its development, that the Government of Canada will be taking the lead on that issue.
“Requirements for any formal document like this must be agreed upon nationally and we will cooperate with the federal government to ensure we have what is needed to support whatever solution is agreed upon. It is not up to the NWT to decide.”