IQALUIT, NUNAVUT – Nunavut has two active COVID-19 cases after the infections were identified in a hamlet on Baffin Island.

It is not yet known whether the cases are the highly transmissible variant of Omicron, which is a cause for concern, but their threat is leading the government to step up public health measures.

Entry and exit to Pangnirtung, where cases were detected on Monday, is restricted to essential purposes, and collective restrictions apply to indoor and outdoor areas.

These are the first cases of COVID-19 to be observed in the small community of around 1,500 people.

“We must remain vigilant this Christmas season too. It is not the time to let up,” Prime Minister PJ Akeeagok said during a press conference in Iqaluit on Tuesday.

“We are seeing increasing cases of Omicron across the country and the statistics are alarming.”

Akeeagok urged residents of the territory to follow all public health measures to prevent the virus from spreading, including masking, vaccinating and avoiding unnecessary travel.

Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Michael Patterson said the Pangnirtung cases are expected to be confirmed later Tuesday but are “unlikely to be false positives.”

Given the growing threat posed by Omicron, the government is immediately stepping up public health action.

“We have lifted the recent order to allow the ward to have some larger gatherings over the holiday,” Patterson said.

“This decision was not an easy or easy decision to make, but it is necessary because of the increased risk involved with Omicron.”

He noted that the variant can spread quickly, even among those double-vaccinated against COVID-19. Patterson encouraged those who have not yet received a booster dose to schedule an appointment.

“We need to change our response to accommodate this increased risk.”

Health Secretary John Main said cuts in the health sector are expected.

“Our health system is particularly thin in Nunavut,” said Main.

“In the short term, our human resources are limited and while we have worked hard to recruit and retain the health care workers needed across the area, benefit cuts will be felt in many communities over the holidays.”

Some communities will only be active in emergency services and have limited access to vaccines, both against COVID-19 and against influenza.

In Pangnirtung, outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 people and indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people plus household members.

Indoor public gatherings, fitness centers, libraries, galleries, and museums are limited to 25 people or 50 percent of capacity, while restaurants are limited to 25 percent.

Places of worship can have a maximum of 50 people or 25 percent capacity. Arenas can hold up to 50 percent of capacity or 50 people, whichever is less, in addition to 50 spectators.

“I know many of us were hoping for a more normal Christmas like we had before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Akeeagok.

“Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the Christmas season, especially the Christmas games. But I won’t be participating in any games this year. I want to do my part to protect my family and our community.”

– By Alanna Smith in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 21, 2021.