Saskatchewan identifies first cases of COVID-19 variant in Regina area

·3 min read

REGINA — Saskatchewan's top doctor says he's concerned that at least 200 new COVID-19 infections are being reported every day in the province as officials confirmed Tuesday the first two cases of a more contagious variant.

The Ministry of Health says the strain that originated in the United Kingdom was found in two residents from in and around Regina. One had travelled from the U.K. and the other was a close contact.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, chief medical health officer, said they were tested in mid-January, but it takes up to two weeks for a variant to be confirmed because samples had to be sent to the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Laboratory.

He said there is no evidence in these cases that the variant spread into the community as those who were infected self-isolated and public-health officials got in touch with their close contacts.

Shahab said three main mutations of COVID-19 -- strains from the U.K., Brazil and South Africa -- are associated with higher transmissibility.

The province said it's assessing what effect these variants could have on the spread of the virus, and whether current public health measures should be tightened or changes made to capacity planning in the health-care system.

Data on how many people were in hospital with the virus wasn't made available on Tuesday because the Ministry of Health said it was updating data reporting systems.

Another 223 new cases of COVID-19 were reported, along with eight more deaths due to the virus, bringing the death toll in the province to 314.

Shahab said he's concerned the seven day average of new daily cases continues to hover around 200 to 225.

"We're certainly trending down, but not as fast as certainly we would like to see," he said during a Tuesday briefing.

"We're constantly reviewing what are specific areas that we can reduce (transmission) and really can't find one specific area."

Premier Scott Moe urged residents to keep following public health advice on wearing a mask and staying home in the face of a more contagious variant.

He also warned there were a couple of tough months ahead.

Moe said the current average of daily new cases is lower than it was in early December, which he contends is evidence that his Saskatchewan Party government's approach to controlling the spread is working.

That has included allowing retail businesses, restaurants and bars to keep seeing customers under capacity restrictions and an alcohol curfew, while prohibiting households from having guests over and banning sports teams from playing games.

Moe said better access to vaccines is the way out of the pandemic and called on Health Canada to approve more candidates to increase supply.

"Do we want COVID to be a conversation of the past? For sure. For certain we do and our way through that is with access, broad-based access, to the masses in this province, and this nation, of vaccines."

Experts have said COVID-19 variants from the U.K. and South Africa are more contagious, and their numbers have been growing fast across Canada.

Earlier Tuesday, Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Canada is in "a very delicate period," with at least 148 cases of the variants confirmed across the country.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press