COVID-19 outbreak in Yukon Territory linked to high school students, unvaccinated adults

A city at the edge of a river with mountains in the background
The Yukon River at Whitehorse. (Creative Commons photo by Gareth Sloan)

The Yukon Territory’s COVID-19 outbreak climbed from 18 to 21 active cases on Monday. That’s despite nearly three-quarters of the territory’s adult population being fully vaccinated. And even though life in Skagway seems to be getting back to normal for most, the rising case count is upending daily life on the other side of the border.

Whitehorse, Yukon’s largest city, sits about 110 miles north of Skagway. With the international border between Canada and the United States remaining closed to all but essential traffic, many people in the small border town of Skagway dream of visits to its closest neighbor accessible by road for groceries, hot springs and more.

However, this weekend Yukon’s COVID-19 cases surged. New cases were reported in Whitehorse as well as smaller communities like Burwash Landing and Carcross.

Yukon Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Catherine Elliott briefed reporters on Monday about a new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus.

“This is an outbreak of the gamma variant of COVID-19, which is a variant of concern that was first recognized in Japan, among people traveling from Brazil,” Elliott said.

Though most of the cases in Yukon involve high school students and unvaccinated adults, at least one fully vaccinated individual in Whitehorse was reported as infected. But Elliott said that’s rare.

“The times we see those unusual rare breakthrough cases is prolonged close contact of the type you have in a household or with a sweetie or with your, you know, best friends,” Elliott said.

Additionally, Elliott confirmed that symptoms are less severe in fully vaccinated people, plus the risk of hospitalization and death is far lower.

That is sure to be reassuring news for Skagway residents who worry that welcoming visitors from the Lower 48 could be exposing them to COVID-19. The first cruise ship to land in Skagway in 21 months, The American Constellation arrived last Friday and brought about 80 new faces to town for an overnight stay.

The latest report from the Dahl Memorial Clinic in Skagway shows 701 people have been fully vaccinated, but with a constantly shifting population, it’s difficult to know exactly what percentage that is.

Skagway’s tour season starts to ramp up significantly in late July, with ships bringing thousands of people to town on the schedule. There is no word yet on when the border between Canada and the U.S. will be opened, though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signaled there may be some relaxation on travel restrictions as early as next week.

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