Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health, speaks to the media during a press conference announcing the cancellation of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games on March 7 in Whitehorse. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

UPDATED: 2020 Arctic Winter Games cancelled over COVID-19 fears

Dr. Catherine Elliott said it was the “responsible recommendation” given global spread of the virus

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games, scheduled for later this month in Whitehorse, have been cancelled on the recommendation of the Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health over concerns surrounding coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Dr. Catherine Elliott, the acting chief medical officer of health for the Yukon, said at a press conference March 7 that COVID-19 has not progressed and spread the way experts predicted.

“Places are seeing community spread with no explanation of how it is happening or why,” said Elliott. “We have been surprised by cases throughout Canada and Washington state in the U.S. that have no links to diagnosed cases nor travel history to affected areas. The global spread of COVID-19 has been faster and more uncertain than many of us have expected.”

Elliott said she was making the recommendation with a “heavy heart” but that it was the “responsible recommendation” and “very unfortunate.”

With the games scheduled to start on March 15, Elliott stressed that globally the situation is not likely to improve and is more than likely going to get worse.

“I can tell you in terms of what can happen in the next week (that) things are not likely to get better globally,” said Elliott. “It’s extremely optimistic to say they would stay the same. The most likely scenario is there will continue to be more spread in the next week globally.”

Asked if any other options were considered for the games between business as usual and cancellation, Elliott was clear that there was no appropriate solution.

“We considered a number of other scenarios and conducted risk assessments for each of those,” said Elliott. “There was no scenario under which we felt it was safe to conduct the Arctic Winter Games.”

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said his government decided earlier to follow the lead of the medical community on the issue of COVID-19.

“We’re not working with a lot of time and we have to make some swift decisions,” said Silver, adding that the situation has progressed since he commented publicly on the issue earlier in the week.

“The international situation changed. … If you take a look at just the last two days alone, the cases, the numbers, have been increasing. So again, the first opportunity we had to sit down and have a conversation with our caucus and with the chief medical officer, it was made known at that point that we really need to make a decision very quickly.”

George Arcand, president of the host society, said the decision was “not made easily” and that the society is “disappointed severely,” but that following Elliott’s recommendation was the responsible decision.

Arcand added that the host society board will be meeting with funding partners and stakeholders over the coming days to “build a plan for decommissioning the games.”

Elliott reiterated the risk for COVID-19 remains low in the territory and that there are currently no cases of the virus in the Yukon. She also shared some information on COVID-19 that can contextualize some of the risks at play. 

Citing the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, Elliott shared that 80 per cent of people who contract the virus will have mild to moderate disease — meaning they will not require hospitalization. Fourteen per cent of people who contract the virus will have severe disease — typically manifesting as respiratory distress.

Five per cent of people who contract the virus will develop critical disease — meaning disease involving failure of an organ system.

The overall case fatality rate, the percentage of people who contract the virus and die, is around two per cent.

That rate climbs to 15 per cent in patients 80 years old and older, and drops to 0.2 per cent (one in 500) in patients aged 10 to 40.

People with underlying medical conditions are also at higher risk from the virus.

Elliott also contextualized the virus as it compares to SARS, another coronavirus that spread globally in 2002 and 2003, and influenza, or the flu.

COVID-19 is less severe than SARS but more contagious, and COVID-19 is more severe than influenza but less contagious.

Elliott stressed that the information on COVID-19 is constantly changing as more research and data is evaluated.

“All of the information that we have about the disease now has been developed and learned in the last two months,” said Elliott. “The information is the best we have today. It will be better in a month, it will be better in six months.”

The 2020 Whitehorse Arctic Winter Games were scheduled for March 15 to 21 and would have seen up to 2,000 visitors come to Whitehorse from across Canada and the circumpolar north.

This marks the first time since the games were first held in Yellowknife in 1970 that they will not be held as scheduled.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com