The Yukon’s largest COVID-19 outbreak intensifies, Skagway looks to avoid a similar fate

Canada’s Yukon Territory is in the middle of its largest COVID-19 outbreak to date with 54 active cases and one confirmed coronavirus-related death.

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

As of Wednesday morning, case numbers had more than doubled in just two days. Skagway officials are preparing for nearly 100,000 cruise ship passengers to visit this summer, and are taking steps to make sure the same sort of outbreak doesn’t happen on their side of the border. 

Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley spoke to reporters on Wednesday from Whitehorse.

A couple of weeks ago we had no active cases in Yukon while we watched our neighbors to the south and east struggle with increasing case counts and illness. You can say in a way that it’s now our turn. Just at the point we thought there was an end in sight and we were ready for further relaxations, this hit us,” said Hanley.

Border restrictions remain in place to prevent all but essential travel between Lynn Canal communities and Canada. But, the possibility of outbreaks in the region looms large as Skagway prepares to receive its first large cruise ships since 2019 next month. 

In addition to the outbreak affecting our neighbors to the north, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Odyssey of the Seas this week has postponed its next sailing out of Florida due to COVID-19 cases. Two passengers and eight crew members tested positive on their last voyage.

Cruise line representatives say the crew had received both courses of the vaccine but hadn’t waited the full two weeks before sailing, which left them susceptible to the virus. They say the postponement was made out of an abundance of caution. The sailing was postponed for four weeks, but other cruises will continue as planned. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that cruise companies can sail with 95% of passengers and crew being fully vaccinated. 

Skagway’s Borough Manager, Brad Ryan said the port agreements between Skagway and the cruise ship companies have contingencies if active cases show up on board.

“If a cruise ship has COVID on it, they are going to have those people isolated on that ship, and they’re not going to get off,” said Ryan.

Ryan said if there is a patient in need of urgent care, such as a need for a ventilator, they will be removed from the ship and medevaced out. They will not be sent to Skagway’s Dahl Memorial Clinic.

Ryan also said there isn’t a specific number of active cases on board a ship that would trigger a cancelation of a port call in Skagway. 

We’ve talked a lot about the fact that we should be getting a lot of notice, they shouldn’t be putting people in town that have COVID. If we did get somebody, say that tripped and fell and went to the clinic, and we tested them, and they tested positive for COVID the ship would take control of that for us,” said Ryan.

Ryan went on to say that if an outbreak did occur that affected the unvaccinated population, contact tracing and other mitigation factors would be easier because of the town’s high vaccination rate.

The exact number of people in Skagway that aren’t vaccinated is difficult to pinpoint. The Dahl Memorial Clinic has stated that about 700 people in town have received full vaccinations. But seasonal employees continue arriving in town to work for the summer season. Ryan estimates that the number of people living in Skagway could currently be as high as 1,500.

He also said employers are pushing their incoming employees to get vaccinated, but it’s impossible to know how many have done so.

Yukon officials said at least two of the recent 54 cases identified in the territory were fully vaccinated. These are known as breakthrough cases. The rest were either too young for the vaccine or unvaccinated adults. The outbreak stems from high school graduation ceremonies and other graduation-related community events.