Both opposition parties are pressing the territorial government on its decision against testing wastewater in the territory for COVID-19, unlike most provinces and territories in the country.
At the Yukon Legislature on April 12, the Yukon NDP floated two motions related to testing wastewater systems for COVID-19, and making that data publicly available.
In a notice of motion, the third party opposition is urging the Yukon government to support municipal and First Nation governments with testing wastewater systems for COVID-19.
Another notice of motion presented by NDP Leader Kate White urges the government to make a central data collection system for wastewater test results and to make that information open to the public through its online COVID-19 dashboard.
During question period on April 7, Yukon Party MLA Patti Mcleod asked why the government is not taking the lead of other jurisdictions across the country to track the amount of COVID-19 in their communities.
In response, Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the Yukon is only one of two jurisdictions in Canada that is not tracking COVID-19 through wastewater sampling.
“We are focused on the strain on our health-care systems, and we have currently — by all accounts, including the acting chief medical officer of health’s — a fantastic system to trace outbreaks and how the virus moves through our communities,” McPhee said.
McPhee said the territory has relied on science to determine how to best do surveillance.
“I don’t understand that this recommendation is changing anytime soon,” McPhee said.
“Should the advice of the acting chief medical officer of health change, we will certainly take that into account.”
The Yukon’s current COVID-19 tracking system involves a case under-count given that it only reflects the results of priority population groups who meet current lab-based PCR testing criteria and does not include the results of rapid testing and private testing.
Wastewater testing can detect otherwise undetected cases of infection.
On its website, the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, which is funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, says COVID-19 can be detected in infected peoples’ stools throughout a significant portion of their illness. The website indicates this provides an opportunity to test sewage for the presence of COVID-19 in communities and institutions, such as long-term care facilities, without the need for testing at the individual level.
This type of surveillance can be used to monitor the circulation of variants of concern and as an early indicator for the presence of COVID-19 infections that are not being tracked through traditional clinical surveillance, according to the website.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is working in collaboration with other federal departments, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and academia across Canada to establish a pan-Canadian wastewater surveillance network capable of monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Canada,” reads the website.
“As COVID-19 can be characterized by symptomatic and asymptomatic infection, it is important to identify the presence of undiagnosed cases to minimize the likelihood of outbreaks.”
The website indicates the usefulness of waste-water surveillance has also been proven for monitoring other public health threats, including the presence of antimicrobial resistance, additional communicable diseases (for example, tuberculosis) and chemical markers indicating the health of a community (for example, the use of opioids).
A map of current wastewater surveillance networks shows Northwest Territories has seven sites and Nunavut has two.
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Northwest Territories are among jurisdictions that publicly post COVID-19 wastewater surveillance information that can be found through the PHAC website.
When asked by a reporter about wastewater testing during a COVID-19 briefing on April 6, acting medical officer of health Dr. Jesse Kancir said that tool was not something the Yukon has relied on and he is “confident” in how surveillance has happened in the territory.
A March 2021 government document outlines the tools used as part of the territory’s public health strategy to mitigate COVID-19 risk. The section on an expanded testing approach states wastewater surveillance is “not yet implemented, still under consideration and evaluation.”
“We believe that so far through the pandemic we haven’t had to rely on that statistic to be able to trace and to curb the spread of the virus in Yukon,” Premier Sandy Silver said during the COVID-19 update on April 6.
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