Yukonomist: Summer 2021 — Does the recovery start here?

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Thanks to the North’s vulnerable communities and distance from healthcare facilities, the federal government has generously given the three territories enough vaccine to inoculate their populations much earlier than the provinces. And far, far earlier than people in poorer countries who are likely to wait into 2022.

This is good news for the Yukon, since vaccines are our path out of the pandemic.

It also raises the intriguing question of what happens when the Yukon reaches its goal of vaccinating 75 percent of the adult population, which is currently planned by the end of March. By the time summer comes, the figure will be even higher.

Could the global recovery start right here, in the summer of 2021? Is it possible that Yukoners could enjoy next summer with most of the pandemic restrictions lifted? And even that our long-suffering tourism industry could see a boom year as vaccinated — and possibly even unvaccinated — Canadians flock to one of the few places in the country with mass vaccination completed?

Having significantly more than 75 percent of adults vaccinated raises the prospect of herd immunity, which the World Health Organization defines as the indirect protection of the population from infectious disease when enough of a population is either vaccinated or has already had the disease. When enough of the population is immune, a disease finds it difficult to spread and peters out.

Meanwhile, according to national projections, about half of Canadian adults will be vaccinated by some time in the summer.

So consider this possible scenario. It’s early summer. The provinces only have half their adults vaccinated and public health restrictions are still in place. Most other countries are only partly vaccinated and international borders remain closed. The Yukon, on the other hand, has significantly more than 75 percent of adults vaccinated. Most restrictions have been lifted and our parks and attractions are open, although it is likely that measures around senior residences and mass gatherings may still be in place.

If the Yukon government lifts the requirement for visitors to isolate for two weeks at this point, the Yukon would be the most attractive place for vaccinated Canadians to visit (apologies to the tourism boards of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut).

Even unvaccinated Canadians could be welcomed, since the Yukon population will be mostly protected. For added comfort, they could be required to show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test in the previous 72 hours when they deplane in Whitehorse, or to take rapid tests when they arrive and isolate for a few days until the results arrive.

A Yukon summer adventure could be our gift to Canadians to kick off the recovery from the COVID-19 times.

The Yukon government could help out the tourism industry lots of ways. They could launch a national advertising campaign or a social media campaign for Yukoners to invite vaccinated Canadian friends and family. They could offer a gift voucher that could be used at Yukon tourism establishments, similar to what Ottawa Tourism does. Or they could offer to pay for that pre-travel test, like Hyatt Hotels does in Latin America.

It’s an intriguing vision. But there are complications.

Vaccines are very safe and effective but unfortunately do not provide 100 percent protection. And while herd immunity suggests the herd overall is safe, those unable to take the vaccine for health or religious reasons remain vulnerable. And since the vaccines are new, researchers are still studying issues such as the risk that vaccinated individuals could still transmit the disease.

New variants of the disease are already circulating Outside, and we may see a large influx of people moving to the Yukon for summer jobs in farming and construction.

Even the concept of herd immunity is more complicated than many think. According to the New York Times, many epidemiologists early in the pandemic estimated that 60 to 70 percent had to be vaccinated for herd immunity to kick in for COVID-19. This figure is tricky to estimate since it depends on the transmissibility of the disease, and this is changing as new mutations appear. The Times says many experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci believe the real number may be significantly higher. Perhaps even 90 percent, which is getting close to the figure for highly contagious diseases such as measles.

On the other hand, if we don’t lift restrictions when most of the population is vaccinated, when do we? Sadly, we are unlikely to ever reach a world where 100 percent of the population has received a vaccine with 100 percent effectiveness.

You can expect this issue to be hotly debated as the tourism season approaches, especially if the spring election many expect takes place. Yukoners in and out of the tourism industry will be listening carefully to how the candidates from each party plan to handle this unprecedented decision.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.