Experts call for action to address Omicron ahead of Thursday COVID update with Sask. officials

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There are now 66 confirmed Omicron cases and 956 suspected Omicron cases in Saskatchewan. Experts say now is the time to introduce measures as the province treads toward an exponential growth. (Sakchai Lalit/The Associated Press - image credit)
There are now 66 confirmed Omicron cases and 956 suspected Omicron cases in Saskatchewan. Experts say now is the time to introduce measures as the province treads toward an exponential growth. (Sakchai Lalit/The Associated Press - image credit)

Experts are calling for measures against the spread of Omicron ahead of a government COVID-19 update planned for Thursday morning.

Saskatchewan reported 293 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 1,645. There are now 66 confirmed Omicron cases and 956 suspected Omicron cases in the province.

"The numbers are not a surprise at all. It was expected and that's what we are seeing," said Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine.

"We could be at the beginning of an exponential growth."

The provincial government is expected to make a public health announcement on Thursday. A bulletin from the premier's office said Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman will hold an update at 11 a.m. "to announce changes related to testing and isolation, and provide an update on key indicators relating to case numbers including hospitalizations."

Muhajarine said the recent provincial and federal data reveals a curve with a steep rise, with the seven-day average experiencing an exponential increase.

He said it is too early to predict whether Saskatchewan will experience surges like Ontario and Quebec, but "Saskatchewan is heading that way, as it doesn't take a lot for Omicron to take over."

Cases being underreported

"We're probably just looking at the tip of the Omicron iceberg," Dennis Kendel, a health policy advisor, told Saskatoon Morning.

"There were only 992 tests performed over the previous 24 hours, a test positivity rate of 16.3%. When the test positivity for PCR testing is that high, we know we're missing a lot of cases."

Trent Peppler/CBC
Trent Peppler/CBC

Kendel said that while the provincial government deserves the credit for making rapid antigen tests widely available to the public for free, not many are following up on a positive result which entails getting a formal PCR test done.

"Particularly people in rural communities, they're just not driving in to get the test done. They're very positive but we aren't counting them because they don't get a PCR test," he said.

Muhajarine agrees that Saskatchewan, like other provinces, is undoubtedly underreporting cases but the degree is unsure — and this is also partly due to lack of PCR test to confirm positive results on rapid tests.

"Our testing regimen is not normal. Our PCR testing regimen is compromised just like in Ontario and Quebec," he said.

"In Saskatchewan, maybe not to that extent, but we are approaching that stage where our PCR testing capacity is being called into question and is compromised."

Government's 'laissez-faire, watch and wait approach' needs to change

Muhajarine said Saskatchewan is the only province to have taken the "most hands-off and very lackadaisical approach at any time during the pandemic," even beating Alberta, in his opinion.

He said Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman, at times of absolute need of health measures, have taken a "watch and wait" approach.

Kendel resonates with that thought.

"When you wait too long, there are preventable deaths and a lot of preventable human suffering," he said.

"I'm very unhappy with the passive approach that our government is currently taking. I'm not expecting anything to happen tomorrow."

University of Saskatchewan
University of Saskatchewan

Muhajarine says the critical point to take action may even have passed already.

"There's an optimal time to introduce measures such as gathering restrictions and capacity limits during a pandemic surge. We are past that optimal time in Saskatchewan," Muhajarine said.

Muhajarine said those measures should have been introduced when the COVID numbers were low. He said telling signs of the coming storm were there when other provinces and jurisdictions around the world reported their first cases of Omicron.

"Moe, hailing from rural Saskatchewan and a farming background, should know how to protect your flock when there is a tornado heading straight toward you," he said. "Instead, they have taken quite a laissez-faire approach, watch and wait."

Need of restrictions as risk persists

While Muhajarine is hopeful the government might announce some measures limiting gathering sizes, Kendel believes otherwise.

"There's some probability that our premier will actually entertain the CDC policy of reducing isolation time. If that happens, I will really be disappointed," Kendel said.

Kendel said though the reported symptoms of Omicron have been mild so far, recent data coming from the U.S. suggests an increase in pediatric admissions by 30 per cent.

"It's unlikely we're going to escape that here. We're going to see a significant rise in admissions, particularly pediatric admissions," Kendel said.

"We have very clear visibility criteria when to shut down a highway in a blizzard. That's what I'd like to see our government do but they sit in silence."

Muhajarine concurs saying that since the variant's infection rate is high, "it will be more than what hospital systems can handle coming out of the fourth wave."

"One of the biggest things I'm hoping for is the gathering restrictions and capacity limits along with some consideration for children and teachers," Muhajarine said.

"I'm hoping that the government would work with school boards to keep students and teachers safe and introduce online learning for a few weeks."

Muhajarine advises residents to stick to their own household bubbles and, if needed, another fully vaccinated household. He suggests getting booster shots to increase the immune response.

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