A Saskatchewan epidemiologist said the government needs to enforce stronger restrictions in Regina to thwart a third wave of COVID.
"We need to have a targeted lockdown for short duration in order to tamp down the variant-driven escalation of cases in Regina," said Nazeem Muhajarine, who is an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
He said the government also needs to provide clearer guidance.
Last week, Premier Scott Moe announced that people could expand their "bubbles" and gather with others. Groups of 150 people will be allowed to congregate in churches — just in time for Easter. Moe's government pointed to declining case numbers as a reason for the loosening restrictions.
The announcement came as more variants of concern were being confirmed in the capital city. The concern stems from evidence that they are more easily spread, leading to higher case counts and potentially more deaths. Regina has lead the nation compared to other cities in case rates per capita for weeks.
"Regina is really quite red hot. It's a big concern," Muhajarine said.
Despite the concern, the rules for people in the city remain the same for those living elsewhere in the province.
A few days after Moe announced the return of the bubble, the government put out different recommendations for Regina. It said residents aged 50 and up "should consider not increasing their household bubble."
It also said Regina residents should limit non-essential travel and shopping, even though businesses and shops remain open in the city and there are no travel restrictions in place.
"That kind of messaging is very difficult to digest," Muhajarine said, noting the discrepancies and lack of clear guidance.
"It's very confusing."
Health minister says stats trending right way
Saskatchewan health minister Paul Merriman said the government issued the recommendations for Regina because it "wanted to be cautious to make sure that we weren't getting ahead of what was happening specifically in Regina. But we also needed to be able to allow people to go and meet if they were doing it in a very responsible way."
He said increased testing and contact tracing is underway in the city to deal with variants, adding Regina is also receiving an increased amount of vaccines.
"More than anything, the quickest way through this is through our vaccines," he said.
Vaccines take a couple of weeks to become effective. Merriman asked people in Regina to be diligent.
Physicians say stats show concerning rates
"Provide your own risk assessment on this. Is it worth going out when these variants are out there or is it something if you could just stay in for a little bit longer?" He said.
Merriman said updates to restrictions — if any are made — will be announced Tuesday.
Merriman repeated that Saskatchewan's stats overall were trending in the right direction.
A recent physician's town hall by the Saskatchewan Health authority noted that the province continues to have the highest new case rate in Canada, is seeing renewed exponential growth again and has among the highest death rates in the country.
The presentation indicates that for at least the last two weeks there is a high likelihood that COVID transmission is not controlled in the Regina area. It said strong population health interventions are needed to control variants of concern.
In February, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said if there is a large increase in virus variant cases in a city, then more stringent localized public health measures may need to be put in place.
No new measures introduced by government
The government did not announce new measures on Monday. About half of the new cases reported in the province on Monday were located in Regina. There are 70 confirmed variant of concern cases in the province, with 62 in Regina. Of the 210 presumptive variants of concern cases awaiting confirmation, 185 are in Regina.
Muhajarine said current restrictions — or lack thereof — are enabling spread.
"It is time it really is time for quick and definitive additional measures," he said. "The government has a role in enabling people to stay safe, and now is the time to have some targeted and very quickly enforced measures."
The government says most of Regina's outbreaks are a result of people going to work or public places while symptomatic. Muhajarine also said younger people in schools could be contributing to the spread. There have been a high number of cases reported in Regina classrooms recently.
Muhajarine called on the Regina mayor to step up if the province won't step in.
"The province has been slow to move. Why shouldn't the mayor and the council, who have a responsibility to keep people safe, take measures?"