Some of Saskatchewan's vital COVID-19 stats may be improving, but it would be a mistake to lift the province's current public health measures — including the requirement to wear masks in public — going into the winter season, says Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer.
Dr. Saqib Shahab made the remarks during the latest COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday, in answer to a question about what the latest COVID-19 modelling shows.
Shahab did not fully outline that modelling, saying he might be able to share it in two weeks, but he did discuss the best of four likely outcomes.
An uptick in the province's vaccination rate, along with more people heeding strong recommendations to limit social contacts and exercise caution during gatherings, have helped bring down the daily number of new COVID-19 cases, Shahab said.
But the number of infected patients in intensive care units is coming down more slowly, he said.
As of Wednesday, in addition to 14 former Saskatchewan patients still in Ontario ICUs, there were 52 patients with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan's ICUs, according to the province's dashboard.
The total number of people in the province's ICUs, including those with illnesses other than COVID-19, remains well beyond the regular provincial capacity of 79.
As of Tuesday, the total ICU number in Saskatchewan was 96 — virtually unchanged from a week earlier, when there were a total of 97 ICU patients in Saskatchewan, along with 26 Saskatchewan patients in Ontario ICUs.
"If we remain as cautious as we are currently in all parts of the province … we can hopefully come really down and stay down over December, January, and our ICUs will empty out with COVID patients," Shahab said. "That is the best outcome."
But the province has to "stay the course" with its current public health measures, Shahab added, which also include a proof of vaccination or negative test program for those entering some non-essential businesses.
"We can't say 'Oh, our numbers are so low that let's just relax everything.' I think that would be a big mistake as we enter into winter."
Shahab said some provinces with more stringent measures than Saskatchewan are seeing case increases.
"We have to be very cautious," he said, repeating an example of that caution that he has used many times in recent weeks — referring to fully vaccinated people wearing masks when playing a board game indoors, especially if someone in the house is over 60 and has underlying health issues.
Mask rule to remain until at least end of month
Saskatchewan announced on Sept. 16 that public masking would be made mandatory again beginning on Sept. 17. The need for COVID-19-positive people to self-isolate was also reinstated.
Both of those measures were extended until the end of November.
The timeline for the proof-of-vaccination is more open ended.
The Saskatchewan government has not indicated in recent days that it plans to drop those measures.
As of Tuesday, 86 per cent of eligible residents had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 80 per cent were fully vaccinated, according to the Saskatchewan Public Health Agency.
Shahab has long stressed the need for those figures to stretch into the 90s, and did so again on Tuesday.
Vaccination rates "still have a way to go, especially in persons under 60," he said. "They are not as high as they need to go to prevent a future wave."
Shahab said he's not willing to accept that Saskatchewan should forever remain among the provinces with the lowest vaccination rates.
"We need to go higher. That will reduce our overall hospitalizations and deaths, as well as reduce our transmission," he said.