New COVID-19 measures not nearly enough, says letter signed by nearly 300 Sask. doctors

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Nearly 300 doctors signed a letter over the noon hour Friday saying the Saskatchewan government's new COVID-19 restrictions do not go far enough.

"We implore you. Please act now," states the letter, signed by 295 Saskatchewan physicians and addressed to Premier Scott Moe, Health Minister Paul Merriman and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.

Government and health officials announced a series of new measures at a Friday morning news conference, including a 10 p.m. curfew for restaurant and bar alcohol sales.

Masks will also be mandatory in all communities greater than 5,000 people, as well as bedroom communities of Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert. Mask use is already required in those cities.

The doctors who signed the letter said those measures will not slow the spread of the COVID-19, which has caused record daily case counts, hospitalizations and ICU admissions in recent days.

The letter calls for mandatory masking in all communities provincewide. It calls for a 28-day closure of bars, bingo halls, gyms and places of worship.

There are also calls to enforce the rules, something Moe and Merriman say they are reluctant to do. The letter also demands a public education campaign and more comprehensive testing and tracing.

"If our province's leaders show us the way by implementing these initiatives, we know that the people of Saskatchewan will work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19," stated the letter.

The doctor's letter echoes the calls from the Saskatchewan Medical Association and six other health organizations.

"We don't have to look too far back or too far away to know what is in store for us in Saskatchewan if our political leaders don't take swift, decisive action to blunt the surge that is overwhelming our health care system and putting Saskatchewan citizens at risk," Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz, president of the SMA, wrote in an op-ed published on the association's website.

"Doing the right thing too late is better than nothing, but it is not our best."

Call for additional measures

The SMA's letter lists three measures needed to get the COVID-19 numbers down again. While mandatory masking indoors is already in place, the signatories want the policy extended throughout the province.

After the announcement of the new government measures, the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses said the new mask policies are not enough.

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses
Saskatchewan Union of Nurses

"We are disappointed because they haven't gone far enough," said Tracy Zambory.

"It's stunning to me because the virus doesn't care if a community has five people in it or 5000 people in it. Many communities in the rural areas in particular are where many of our rural long-term care facilities are, our integrated facilities, where some of the most vulnerable populations are. And we've chosen not to make masking mandatory there. That makes no sense."

Bars and nightclubs

The op-ed also calls for a "targeted closing of bars and nightclubs until the surge is blunted," pointing to recent outbreaks at facilities in Saskatoon and worldwide.

"These venues are very COVID-friendly," Konstantynowicz wrote.

"People go there to congregate; physical distancing is hard. Alcohol is a disinhibitor. Loud music makes people raise their voices to be heard, which releases more virus-containing droplets."

The new alcohol service curfew for licensed establishments will start Monday. Customers at bars or nightclubs won't be able to buy alcohol after 10 p.m., and have to finish their beverages by 11 p.m.

The province will be shut down for months, said Zambory, if Saskatchewan doesn't implement bold changes such as temporarily closing bars and nightclubs.

"We understand that there is an economic issue here and people need to have income coming in," she said.

"It's disappointing that we are slow walking here and we can't seem to be brave enough to take that step."

The seven organizations also call for radically improved testing and tracing. The op-ed argues that the time lag between getting tested and receiving the results is one reason why pandemics "get out of control." Another problem is that tests are not easily available for asymptomatic people, according to the op-ed.

"Testing technology is improving; there are now test strips that can produce results within 15 minutes. Intensive testing with instant results is the only way to detect emerging clusters before they grow too big to contain."

Physician, nursing, pharmacy associations sign on

The six organizations who stand behind SMA's call for more action include the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, the Pharmacy Association of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy Professionals.

The op-ed lists Slovakia as a positive example of effective testing, saying the country was able to test half of its population (5.5 million) within one day.

"We do not propose these measures lightly," said Konstantynowicz.

"But if the province does not pursue them, things will get worse — possibly a lot worse.... As cases mount, there will have to be a more widespread lockdown, and the economic domino effect that ensues."

Zambory said nurses in the province have told her they are exhausted.

"They are feeling scared and they are feeling frustrated," said Zambory.

"They feel like there's times when the public isn't listening…. They are feeling frustrated because there isn't the human health resource to continue going down the road that we're going right now."