- Restaurants across Saskatchewan will be limited to take-out services on Monday.
- Non-essential medical staff, volunteers still need to self-isolate for 14 days following international travel.
- Total number of cases in Saskatchewan climbs to 44, with 25 confirmed cases and 19 presumptive.
- Self-isolation support program being offered to Saskatchewan residents from province.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan has climbed from 26 to 44, including a doctor who tested positive for virus.
Dr. Jesse Melle, who works at the Rosthern Medical Clinic, recently posted on the clinic's official Facebook page that he and his wife were diagnosed with the virus following a trip to Alberta.
"It is with a heavy heart that I need to confirm that my wife and I have contracted COVID-19 from recent travel to Alberta," the post, which was signed as Dr. Melle, indicated.
"I want to assure you that throughout the last week myself and my colleagues followed the guidance of the Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Federal Governments on appropriate social distancing and safe practices regarding transmission of the virus," the post continued.
"Even with strict adherence to the recommendations at the time, against our best efforts and with very cautious hygiene, my wife and I still contracted the virus."
In the post, he said he's learned that staying home is "the only way to keep yourself safe."
Dr. Melle said in the Facebook post that as soon as he's well, he'll be returning to practice.
"I will be returning to the only thing I know how to do — the thing I love — helping this community to stay healthy. Be kind to one another. Stay well. We are in this together," the post concludes.
On March 20, the Saskatchewan Health Authority issued a release saying Rosthern Hospital's emergency and lab services were closed due to "staff shortages." It's unclear whether the closure is connected to Dr. Melle's diagnosis.
The release then directed people to seek emergency services at hospitals in Saskatoon or the Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert.
'A startling reminder of the risk in gatherings'
On Thursday, the president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, which represents doctors in Saskatchewan, confirmed he contracted COVID-19, likely at a curling bonspiel in Edmonton.
The province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said at a teleconference on Saturday that of the 22 people from Saskatchewan who attended that event, 11 have tested positive. The attendees were from Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
"This is a startling reminder of the risk in gatherings, even as health care workers," Dr. Shahab said.
"All of us should be very careful about attending any events, even if it's a funeral. You must maintain a two-metre separation…The new normal in Saskatchewan is if you are out shopping or collecting takeout, remain two metres apart."
Dr. Shahab praised businesses that have been putting measures in place to keep people two metres apart, like marking lines on the floor for lineups, and creating special shopping hours for older adults and other people who are at risk.
18 new cases
The number of cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan jumped from 26 to 44 overnight: 25 confirmed and 19 presumptive. That number includes 18 new cases: 17 confirmed and one presumptive.
All cases were reported in people aged 20 and older except for one. The province did not say the age of the person under 20.
The Health Ministry said 65 per cent of cases were in males and 35 per cent in females. Public health officials are investigating any people have had contact with those who have tested positive.
Out of the 44 cases, at least three cannot be connected to transmission via travel or attendance at a large gathering. Dr. Shahab said if a connection cannot be confirmed in the next two or three days, that will mean there is community transmission.
"As of today, we don't have that information, but in two or three days, as the case numbers rise and we are unable to confirm the exposure, we will definitely have to state that there is evidence of community transmission."
Testing process to speed up
The province also announced it will now be processing all future tests at the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory in Saskatchewan, replacing the previous practice of sending them to Winnipeg for processing.
The Saskatchewan laboratory will speed up the testing process. For that reason, it will no longer be reporting "presumptive" cases, only those that are confirmed.
"Although some of the earlier presumptive positive cases that were sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg are still awaiting confirmation, from now on we will no longer have to wait for these confirmatory results," the health ministry said in a statement.
The Saskatchewan lab is currently processing about 456 COVID-19 tests per day, it said.
Stressful times in Rosthern: mayor
Rosthern Mayor Dennis Helmuth said the hospital is still open on an inpatient basis, with a skeleton staff for those in care, but no new patients are being admitted.
Helmuth, who has been in close contact with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said doctors from outside the Rosthern core are in to monitor the community and provide medical services the best they can.
"As you can imagine, it's a very stressful time," he said in an interview on Saturday.
"There's a lot of fear, but I think there's a high level of understanding that this is the situation we're in and everyone is practicing social isolation and helping out the best they can and in as safe a way as they can."
He says residents in the community are using social distancing practices, with staff at the local grocery store also informing residents about the seriousness of the situation.
"It's an ongoing process, but my sense is that most people in our community, and no doubt the outlying communities, are fully aware of the intensity of the situation we're up against here and are doing their best."
Helmuth said while he's sure there is "a lot of tension" in the community, he thinks the town is faring well. "It's stressful, but here we are, and I'm reasonably confident that we will weather the storm and at the end of the day, we'll be an even stronger community."
FSIN calls for provincial border closure
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is urging the Saskatchewan government to close provincial borders.
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said highway traffic from other provinces is putting Saskatchewan residents at risk.
"Travellers from all over Canada continue to travel into Saskatchewan and could be unknowingly transmitting COVID-19," said Cameron. "We must work together to stop or decrease the spread."
Cameron said some First Nations have already started limiting incoming and outgoing traffic.
NDP calls for more support for businesses
Earlier today, the Saskatchewan NDP called on the province to do more to support local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trent Wotherspoon, the Saskatchewan NDP's finance critic, spoke with reporters alongside several business owners who have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic in Regina on Saturday.
At the event, the NDP called for the provincial government to bring forward several new measures to protect small businesses in Saskatchewan.
These include no interest loans for small businesses, lease and mortgage deferral legislation for business owners for up to six months, deferrals for term contracts like leases on vehicles for businesses and more support for those who are self-employed and going to self-isolate.
"Those supports needs to be extended as well, not just for self-isolation, but for those who have had their income devastated, their revenues devastated," he said.
They noted that cultural and creative professions, like musicians and artists, should also be included.
Wotherspoon also called for evictions in the province to be stopped as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
"Now is not the time," he said.
The Government of Saskatchewan responded to the NDP's criticism in a statement saying Premier Moe has announced a financial support plan for employers and employees.
"The plan dovetails with new federal support measures for employees and employers, including new employment insurance provisions allowing for immediate access to increased federal benefits," the statement reads.
"The plan also included significant measures to free up business cash flow through PST and Crown utility deferral programs."
Business owners being left to fend for themselves
Several business owners also spoke at the event and expressed their concern about the future of their business.
This includes Nicole Hunter and Nicolette Hunter, who own Nico Lady + Baby in Regina.
"We are here today to put forth a call of action," said Nicole Hunter. "As our week started with reduced hours, it swiftly ended in the closure of our doors so that we could continue to do our part in protecting our community and flattening the curve."
If you don't give your tenants the support they need, they're not going to be here when this is all done. - Nicolette Hunter
She said the measure was taken without any sort of support or reassurance from their landlord.
When asked how fearful they are they won't be able to open their doors after COVID-19, Nicolette Hunter said they've been having a lot of conversations with other tenants in Saskatchewan and across Canada, and said she's heard concerns from many other business owners.
"What we are hoping for is that landlords, commercial landlords across the province, will see this as a long-term investment in their own businesses too, because ultimately, if you don't give your tenants the support they need, they're not going to be here when this is all done."
She said her landlord, at this time, has said they'll have to follow the lease as it's written, despite the fact revenues are way down.
Earlier this week, the Government of Saskatchewan announced several major initiatives aimed at helping businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic.
More restrictions in place
Premier Scott Moe said on Friday he was concerned some individuals who recently travelled outside of Canada were not respecting self-isolation requirements. As a result, those who violate the rules could be subject to a $2,000 fine.
However, on Friday a notice sent out from the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) indicated some front-line workers will be exempt from the requirement.
"Health care workers who have travelled internationally may be exempt only if they are required to work to maintain essential health care services or provide emergency health care," the Saskatchewan Health Authority said in a statement.
"If the SHA determines a health care worker is exempt, the worker must be supervised by Infection, Prevention Control Officers and/or Occupational Health and Safety in the workplace."
All physicians, students and volunteers who have returned from international travel on March 6 or later are still required to self-isolate.
"This is not a suggestion, this is not a guideline, it is now the law," Moe told reporters on Friday.
New measures introduced across the board
Alongside fining members of the public who do not abide by the self-isolating requirements, public gatherings of more than 25 people in one room have been prohibited, expect when two-metre distancing can be maintained.
Nightclubs, bars, lounges and any any similar facilities must all be closed, but take-out alcohol and food is permitted as long as there is two-metre distancing between the customers and those delivering the products.
Restaurants, bistros, food courts and other eating establishments will close across the province effective March 23, alongside the closure of casinos, fitness centres, bingo halls and swimming pools.
"We should minimize contact among ourselves, among families socially and really remain as isolated within our households as possible," said the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, at Friday's press conference.
Some financial support being offered by province
Those who are self-isolating will now have access to funds from the province in the form of $450 a week for a maximum of two weeks, totalling $900.
This program is for Saskatchewan residents who are in self-isolation. The program is anticipated to cost $10 million.
The self-isolation support is just one new support being offered by the Government of Saskatchewan, as they've also introduced a suspension of all audits and a three-month remittance deferral for businesses who are unable to remit their PST due to cash flow concerns.
Over the next three months, the province estimates the value of the deferrals will up to $750 million.
A six-month pause is also being put on student loan repayments, mirroring a similar step taken by the federal government. Earlier this week, the province also deferred all interest payments on Crown utilities for six months.
"During this time of great uncertainty, it is of the utmost importance that Saskatchewan people know their government is here to provide support," Moe said in a news release.
"This plan supports businesses and employees. Most importantly, it supports the opportunity to come back to work when we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis."
Moe said on Friday the government is already starting to see a "slow down" of the economy in Saskatchewan.
Supports aimed at helping people avoid eviction
The Premier said Government hopes some of the financial supports they've put in place will help those who are facing financial shortfalls and evictions as a result of COVID-19, noting there is shelter available through social housing and Social Services.
"These supports that have been put in place, they are to prevent that," said Moe. "If you are able to forego the interest on your power bill for six months, as you're not able to pay that, that is going to provide you some dollars to pay some of the other expenses you have."
Union says measures don't go far enough
On Saturday, the Canadian Union of Public Employees issued a release indicating some of the supports being offered by the Saskatchewan Party government do not go far enough. The union feels restrictions around who can access the self-isolation fund is too restrictive.
"The Self-Isolation Support Program seems like a good idea, but the eligibility is overly restrictive, and it does not take into account people with chronic health issues, or people who may need to isolate for longer than two weeks," said Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan.
The union is calling on the provincial government to make numerous changes, including removing restrictions on self-isolation eligibility, maintain income for public workers affected by temporarily closures of schools and universities and provide financial support for parents who cannot afford alternative care or have to miss work due to child care.
Police already receiving some calls
The Saskatoon Police Service indicated on its official Facebook account that it's already receiving calls from people who are reporting those who are not self-isolating.
"We wish to advise the public that we will take the caller's information and forward to the information to health once we have a reporting system in pace," said the SPS in the Facebook post. "We are continuing to work with the Saskatchewan Public Health and the Saskatchewan Public Safety Authority in this regard."