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UPDATED: Yukoners urged to stay in, avoid gatherings of more than 50 in light of COVID-19 concerns

Health officers provided an update on March 16
Yukon chief medical officer of health Dr. Brendan Hanley, left, and deputy health officer Catherine Elliott speak to media during a press conference in Whitehorse on March 16, in which they updated the precautions residents should take against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Gatherings with more than 50 people are “banned” in the Yukon, according to the territory’s chief medical officer of health.

On March 16, Dr. Brendan Hanley and deputy health officer Catherine Elliott appealed to Yukon residents in an effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, or ways in which to reduce its severity by limiting exposure. Social distancing in order to alleviate pressure on the health care system is being recommended across the country.

“Let’s be clear,” said Hanley, “this is coming to Yukon and could well be here without us knowing. We’re at a pivotal moment in Yukon’s history, where a collective, strong, determined unified response is necessary. Now is the time to pull together. By doing this together we may save lives.

“For now, we need to overcome fear with reliable information and uncertainty with solidarity.”

Seniors are being strongly urged to stay home and avoid gatherings; restaurants and bars should make a point to lower capacity to ensure more space between customers.

“The goal is to decrease how quickly COVID-19 spreads from person to person,” said Elliott, “and we are also working to delay the introduction into the Yukon … so that’s pushing the curve out.”

The virus has yet to hit any of the territories but is present in all provinces.

“We will have some losses, some shared pain, perhaps, some grief, but by working together we can also share the joy, the satisfaction that we will get when we turn back the tide of this epidemic,” Hanley said.

The World Health Organization deemed the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic last week.

The ban on gatherings isn’t legislated — it’s a request, Hanley said.

“We haven’t yet looked at the enforcement measures. I expect there will not be compliance issues with this.

“I think we’re looking at incremental responses and still trying to have a measured response. I would say standby.”

There’s a grace period with schools, it being spring break. But this could change. Hanley said discussions regarding this are ongoing.

“We think by the middle of this week we’ll have a recommendation on schools.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that borders are closed to non-citizens and non-permanent residents. On March 18, he announced there will be no more non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S. Trudeau said Canadians returning home should self-isolate for 14 days. Self-isolation means staying at home and not having visitors.

On top of not travelling to international destinations, Hanley urged Yukoners to not go to Alaska. He said it would require a coordinated effort in terms of Alaskans entering the territory.

“In addition, even with a mild cough or if you have been travelling outside Yukon during the prior 14 days, you should not visit our health care facilities,” Hanley said. “Active screening is taking place at the hospitals. In addition, for long-term care, for the time being, we are asking that there be no visitors, including volunteers, unless family members are at the end of their lives, or gravely ill, regardless of travelling.”

More than 100 tests have been completed so far, Elliott said.

Yukon Party MLAs have been raising COVID-19 test delays in the legislative assembly this week. Interim leader Stacey Hassard said he’s heard from “a few” constituents that tests have been coming in late from British Columbia, where they are analyzed.

It takes between three and five days to get tests back from British Columbia.

“We’re heard from constituents that the testing can take anywhere from six to 14 days,” said Hassard.

A cabinet spokesperson confirmed the delays, stating that they span one to two days beyond the initial wait times.

Matthew Cameron said this is “due to the sheer number of tests” that are being completed.

“The B.C. Centre for Disease Control public health laboratory is currently working on improving turnaround times,” he said.

People exhibiting symptoms including such as a fever, cough and shortness of breath who have travelled outside of Canada within 14 days, or have been in close contact with someone who has a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19, are being urged to call 811 instead of attending hospitals or health centres. Health officers have said the line is experiencing a lot of traffic.

Cameron said the Yukon government is working to set up a Yukon-specific phone line.

“In the meantime, 811 continues to be shared with B.C., and the B.C. government has been adding staff to address record high call numbers,” he said.

See more of the News’ coverage on the Yukon and COVID-19 here.

Contact Julien Gignac at