Pauline Frost, minister of health and social services, from left, Dr. Brendan Hanley, the territoryճ chief medical officer of health, and Dr. Catherine Elliott, the deputy chief medical officer of health, provide media with an update on the coronavirus risk in the Yukon during a press conference in Whitehorse on March 12. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

The Yukon is safe from coronavirus so far, say chief medical officers

‘Scores’ of people are being tested for the virus on a daily basis

While Yukoners are being tested for coronavirus every day, the risk remains low in the territory, according to the deputy chief medical officer of health.

During a press conference on March 12, her first public appeal since the Arctic Winter Games were cancelled last weekend amid COVID-19 concerns, Dr. Catherine Elliott said “scores” of people are undergoing these tests. Asked to elaborate, she said this means more than 10 but less than 100 people.

Pauline Frost, minister of health and social services, and Dr. Brendan Hanley, the territory’s chief medical officer of health, were also at the briefing.

It appears that the Yukon’s top doctors are anticipating that the virus — now considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization — will eventually enter the territory, but that when it does, the health care system will be ready and able to prevent it from spreading, they said.

Hanley said coronavirus falls somewhere between severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and influenza, adding that the situation develops “by the minute.”

There have been preventative measures in the works for a while, Elliott said, like “surveillance tests,” which started two weeks ago.

Earlier this week, Premier Sandy Silver said those tested for influenza are also screened for coronavirus.

Deputy premier Ranj Pillai was tested for the virus on March 11 after attending a mining conference in Toronto last week. Frost told reporters this week that 40 Yukoners were at the event.

As of March 12, there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Yukon.

Elliott said that the territory has “been ready for the first case for some time,” adding that there’s an adequate supply of test kits. The Yukon is working with jurisdictions across the country when it comes to equipment, she said.

“I think what we’re hoping is that the public doesn’t overreact to the first case, to be perfectly honest,” Elliott said. “From a public health perspective, it’s not a big deal. It’s completely what we do with any infectious disease that has the same type of spread. It’s bread and butter public health. I think the concern is the fear.”

Hanley echoed this in saying while it’s “uncharted territory,” the situation is “completely manageable.” There are challenges when it comes to scale and its unpredictable nature, he added.

Unlike influenza, in order for coronavirus to spread, someone would have to have symptoms.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include a cough, fever or shortness of breath.

Low-threshold testing — surveillance — is where priorities are at currently, Hanley said, then containment.

“We’re looking for that first case so it can be contained appropriately and that we can then do the contact tracing that’s required, and, you know what, we’re practicing this already,” he said. “We’ve had low-risk cases under investigation.”

The next phases deal with managing clusters of cases, followed by community spread, Hanley said.

“It’s a measured response according to the need.”

People exhibiting symptoms are urged to dial 811, after which medical personnel travel to someone’s house and perform the tests there.

“Same principle applies: let’s keep the germs where they are,” Elliott said. “During that test turnaround time, you continue to self-isolate.”

Tests, she said, come back within three to five days as they have to be sent to British Columbia to be analyzed.

Asked whether closing highways and airports could happen, Hanley said such cases would be “very unlikely, because those measures, those sorts of, almost like reflex closing of borders, to me speak more to a paranoia, for the most part, than to a really rational public health-based decision.”

Later in the day, during question period, Richard Mostyn, minister of highways and public works, said while no screening changes have taken root at the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport, more cleaning is being done there. Those cycling through, he added, are being urged to wash their hands more frequently.

Yukoners who travel abroad are not being asked to self-isolate, Elliott said, but there are some exceptions.

“People who have been to the Hubei province in China, people who have been to Iran and people who have been to Italy, we ask those people to self-isolate when they don’t have symptoms,” she said. “Other than that, people who have travelled abroad, we ask them to self-monitor and start to self-isolate if symptoms develop.”

Yukon College advised its students that there are no changes to regularly scheduled classes ahead of reading week, according to a public statement.

It notes there will be updates on the situation over the next 10 days, at least.

Instructional staff have been asked to consider “options” for completing courses should classes be disrupted.

Students planning to travel are also being asked to voluntarily report their plans to the school in an effort to monitor the situation.

College spokesperson Jaqueline Bedard said the college is continuing to follow the lead of the territory’s chief medical officer of health and will continue providing updates on the situation.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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