Public health officials estimate that, at best, Saskatchewan will nearly double its total number of COVID-19 cases over the next six months, according to models released Thursday afternoon.
To date, there have been 5,651 known COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan.
New modelling suggests that number could increase by anywhere from 4,830 to 469,000 cases over the next six months, depending on how well Saskatchewan residents adhere to public health orders including physical distancing, limiting social contact and wearing masks.
"The worst-case scenarios are still there even if you have low numbers," said Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab during a news conference Thursday. "What it shows is that you can, through fairly simple measures, bend the curve.
"All of us need to stay home when we're sick, wear a mask, wash our hands, maintain a two-metre distance. Otherwise, we can't bend the curve. It's not just up to a few of us — all of us have to do it."
COVID-19 modelling calculates where the province could be heading based on transmission rates and variables like how much action is taken to reduce them. The models will allow the Saskatchewan Health Authority to plan for various scenarios in the coming weeks and months.
The modelling released Thursday offers six-month projections and 14-day forecasts.
Four scenarios were offered in the six-month projections. Each assumed that schools and businesses remain open and that "mixing" occurs at homes, work, schools, hospitals and long-term care facilities.
The most optimistic view would see 60 per cent of Saskatchewan residents using masks, half the population working from home, people visiting restaurants and bars at 25 per cent of historic levels, 20 per cent of residents engaging in weekly private gatherings, weekly social gatherings being limited to five people and residents visiting the grocery store once a week.
Should that happen, the modelling suggests that in six months, Saskatchewan will announce 76 new cases of COVID-19 per day and five people would be admitted to hospital for COVID-19 each day, including two to the intensive care unit.
In this scenario, the total number of cases would rise by 4,830 and the total deaths would rise by 34.
"That's the beauty of modelling. All of these small measures, when you add them up at a population-level, it's almost too easy to achieve, isn't it?" said Shahab.
"I find it hard to believe that if you all do these simple measures, you can bend the curve... It really is up to all of us."
On the other end of the spectrum, however, the picture is much more dire.
The pessimistic view has half of Saskatchewan residents engaging in weekly private gatherings, only 20 per cent using masks, weekly social gathering sizes grow to 20 people, only 10 per cent of people work from home, and residents frequent bars and restaurants as they normally would and visit the grocery store twice a week.
In that scenario, the models suggest that in six months, the number of new COVID-19 cases announced per day would inflate to 8,390, and total cases would rise to 469,000. There would be 677 hospitalizations per day, including 222 people moved to the ICU. The number of deaths would rise to 4,800.
Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical health officer in Saskatoon, was pleased to see epidemiological data and modelling released Thursday, but said it's unclear whether the new public health measures will be enough to bend the curve — and if they do, how long it will take.
"It stood out to me that we were not given an expected outcome of these public health measures, which I think the modelling could actually forecast," Huang said.
Models don't factor COVID-19 vaccine
Shahab noted that the calculations did not factor in the possible introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine, which he expects to come by May 2021.
Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech announced earlier this month that their respective vaccines are showing promising results in clinical trials. The federal government has signed deals with several other vaccine developers.
"There has been some good news about vaccine in recent days, but of course production and distribution of millions of doses that Canada needs is going to take some time," Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman said during Thursday's news conference.
The federal government has secured six million doses — four million from Pfizer/BioNTech and two million from Moderna — that will be distributed within the first three months of 2021, Merriman said.
Of those initial doses, Saskatchewan will receive roughly 180,000, Merriman said. Seniors and health-care workers would likely be the first to be vaccinated, but it will be administered "on a priority basis."
Until there is a vaccine, however, Merriman urged Saskatchewan residents to follow public health orders.
"It's important to remember that as hard as it seems right now, with all the public health restriction to combat COVID-19, there's an end in sight," said Huang. "We're looking at another six months of doing what we can to limit the collateral damage from the virus.
"But hang in there. There's an end in sight and we'll get to it, together."
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