YELLOWKNIFE — The top doctor in the Northwest Territories has closed all schools in Yellowknife and surrounding areas after a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Schools closed Tuesday — two weeks after students returned to classrooms — and are to stay closed until at least Sept. 24.
Students will shift to online learning, said a statement from Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer.
Kandola noted that Yellowknife's vaccination rate is high — 80 per cent of those eligible for shots are fully immunized — but she chose to close schools to protect children under 12 who can't receive a vaccine.
"The fight is not over until schools and classrooms are safe, too," Kandola told a news conference.
She also ordered that private gatherings in Yellowknife and the surrounding area be limited to 10 people. No more than five can be from another household.
The territory is dealing with its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic. There have been 523 cases since early August after a hand-games tournament became a superspreader event.
The bulk of the N.W.T.'s 179 active cases are in three communities. There were 117 cases reported in Yellowknife, 22 in Behchokǫ̀̀ and 14 in Whatì. Both areas are northwest of the capital.
"We are seeing severe outcomes in those who are not fully vaccinated," Kandola said.
There are more than 70 underhoused people with COVID-19 and cases have been reported in four schools, Kandola said. There have been 16 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the last month, five people admitted to the intensive care unit and one death related to the virus.
Kandola said she ordered schools to close because public health workers in Yellowknife can't keep up with contact tracing and testing.
"Yellowknife Public Health is not able to complete testing and contact tracing in a timely fashion that would reliably prevent further transmission at schools," she said.
The order to close schools represents "a very significant shift" in the territorial government's response to COVID-19, Kandola said.
"The increase in COVID-19 activity in Yellowknife risks the safety of our students, especially those under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination."
Day homes and daycares are exempt from the order, but Kandola said she recommends that everyone in Yellowknife and the surrounding area work from home if possible.
"If you have the capacity to help, please reach out to your neighbours and fellow community members and help one another out where it is needed."
Behchokǫ̀, a community of about 1,800 people 110 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife, has been under a 14-day lockdown since Thursday to try to slow the spread of the outbreak driven by the Delta variant.
Yellowknife's day shelter and sobering centre have also closed after a number of staff were infected. The government said Tuesday that Yellowknife's community arena will be used as an emergency shelter, while the city's ski club facilities will be turned into an isolation centre.
On Monday, the N.W.T. government asked the federal government for 20 members of the Canadian Red Cross to help keep up shelter operations, but said it has not yet heard back.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.
— By Emma Tranter in Iqaluit
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
The Canadian Press