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Yukon saw 97 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed over the weekend, and one additional death, for a total of 157 active infections – and 50 per cent of those infected are fully vaccinated.The Associated Press

When Elizabeth Skookum makes the two-hour drive from her far-flung Yukon community of Carmacks south to Whitehorse, she usually stocks up on groceries, gas and sometimes swings through Walmart. Her last trip, however, she didn’t even gas up in the Yukon capital, instead refuelling her vehicle from snow-covered jerry cans in her backyard.

A member of the Tahltan First Nation, she is one of at least 13 fully vaccinated individuals in her community to contract COVID-19, and was travelling to Whitehorse to see her husband, also fully vaccinated, who was in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

Mrs. Skookum, 51, works at the elementary school in Carmacks, which voluntarily closed its doors last week until the end of November. “There was something really bad going around the school,” she said. When she got sick, she thought it was just a head cold and didn’t bother getting tested, until her husband tested positive for COVID-19 days later.

Yukon is grappling with the worst per-capita COVID-19 numbers in Canada, with 97 new cases diagnosed on the weekend, and one additional death, for a total of 157 active infections – and 50 per cent of those infected are fully vaccinated. This comes despite the territory having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country with 85 per cent of those 12 and older fully vaccinated. It was so far ahead of the curve that many were fully immunized by February.

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Yukon seemed to be doing everything right, surviving the first waves of the pandemic so well it became something of a bellwether for the rest of the country. This current outbreak has many questioning what might have gone wrong and how the territory can get back on track.

Whitehorse General Hospital’s ICU is currently at 75-per-cent capacity. But it only has four beds, said Dr. Ryan Warshawski, head of the Yukon Medical Association. “When you have a small jurisdiction, one superspreader event can make the per-capita rate look absolutely massive.”

On Nov. 14, the territorial government declared a state of emergency and reintroduced mandatory masking – which had been dropped on Aug. 4. It also recently put in place a vaccine-passport system and limits on public gatherings.

“We were seeing a rolling average of 10 cases a day, and suddenly that increased overnight to 30 cases a day, and we are reacting,” said Yukon Premier Sandy Silver.

Government is following the science, he said. “But moving from Newton to Einstein to the quantum realm, science changes. Dealing with a pandemic, which we haven’t seen for 100 years, the information coming in changes as well.”

The territory is now facing a worker shortage, including a dearth of doctors, nurses, hospital techs and teachers. This, combined with a new mandatory vaccination policy for government employees, volunteers and staff at government-funded organizations, has Ted Hupe worried.

“Schools are already understaffed,” said the long-time educator and president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association. “We have uncertified substitute teachers in rural schools. We can’t afford to lose anyone.”

Mr. Hupe has had difficult conversations with teachers he knows won’t get vaccinated. “Even if we only lose 5 per cent of our work force, that’s 50 people we can’t afford to lose,” he said.

He would like to see Yukon adopt similar policies to neighbouring Northwest Territories, which has agreed to test unvaccinated teachers weekly. So far, Yukon is refusing.

“But they’re not giving us any medical rationale,” Mr. Hupe said. There has also been no real rationale for keeping schools open in the midst of this outbreak, he said. “We are ready to pivot to online learning – a circuit-breaker shutdown could be a short-term solution.”

The largest elementary school in Whitehorse was missing some 80 per cent of its students and staff last week, who were quarantining because of COVID-19 exposure notices.

Thane Phillips has a son at that school who is home self-isolating. He is keeping his younger daughter home too – though this wasn’t required, despite close contact with her brother.

“We got complacent,” said Mr. Phillips, who was out bison hunting when Yukon’s case counts snowballed. “I got back and it got really real, really fast,” he said. “We shouldn’t have dropped the mask mandate. Masks are easy, they’re the low-hanging fruit.”

Yukon made it through last winter relatively unscathed, in large part because everyone entering the territory was required to quarantine for two weeks. There was a mask mandate in place and schools were closed for a good chunk of the year. In the spring, the mandatory quarantine was dropped, and in August, Yukon got rid of all other restrictions, completely opening up.

Yukon was doing so well, people may have felt the worst was over, said Dr. André Corriveau, the territory’s acting chief medical officer, who took the reins this week after Dr. Catherine Elliott went on leave. There are several explanations for the sudden spike in cases, he said. “It’s easy in a small jurisdiction to go from very low to very high numbers very quickly. For us, 20 cases is a big jump.”

The territory’s early vaccination schedule may also be partially to blame. Many Yukoners received their second doses in February or March, he said. “And circulating antibody levels do wane over time.”

But Dr. Warshawski is not certain the jump in COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated individuals is tied to waning immunity. “There is not clear evidence in healthy people under the age of 60 that we have waning immunity to the point people are getting markedly sicker,” he said.

One thing he is certain of: If Whitehorse didn’t have such a high vaccination rate during this outbreak, the hospital would already be completely overwhelmed.

The arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant, not long after children went back to school in August, exacerbated the situation, Dr. Warshawski said. Children are a huge unvaccinated cohort, he said. “We can talk about mask wearing and handwashing, but the reality is there is no true social distancing that actually happens in school – that’s the reality of children.”

Despite these challenges, Dr. Corriveau is in favour of keeping schools open. Most transmissions don’t happen in the classroom, he said. “The benefits of allowing kids to go to school and do sports outweigh the risks.”

COVID-19 is going the way of influenza, Dr. Corriveau said. “It will become part of the environment and require some vigilance, but we will learn to live with it.”

Mr. Silver hopes to lift Yukon’s tightened restrictions by Dec. 3. “We are trying to be as least restrictive as possible,” he said, citing the mental-health implications of too many constraints. “This is the new normal, we need to learn how to live with COVID. It will be endemic, and we will see spikes and outbreaks.”

Small businesses in Yukon were counting on an upswing in the summer of 2022. “We thought we were going to come out of this,” said Denny Kobayashi, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce.

Yukon led the country when it came to supporting small businesses during the onset of the pandemic, Mr. Kobayashi said. While some of these funding programs were recently extended, he is not sure just how long this will be sustainable.

“Yukoners and northerners really rally together, and there has been such a successful push to buy local,” he said. “Now, even with this support, some small businesses cannot hold on.”


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect reference for Elizabeth Skookum's First Nation.

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