REGINA — Older residents in Saskatchewan's capital are being urged to stay home as health officials closely watch a rise in COVID-19 variant cases to see if more public health measures are needed.
The recommendation Friday came days after a ban on household guests was eased and on the one-year anniversary of the province announcing its first case of the novel coronavirus.
Another 77 presumed infections of the more contagious variants in the Regina area from this week were reported Friday.
That was in addition to 70 infectious variants confirmed in Saskatchewan over the past two months, most of them the B.1.1.7 strain, the mutation first detected in the United Kingdom.
To date, nearly all of the cases have been in and around Regina. The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it believes the virus in the community is likely from a more infectious strain.
"It's a race between the variants and the vaccine," said Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
"And right now, it seems like in Regina, at least, the variants are getting the upper hand."
Health officials urged Regina residents 50 and older not to take advantage of the loosened restriction on household guests, to limit their shopping to essential items, to seek testing even with mild symptoms and to stay home if sick.
"Public health will be closely monitoring the situation regarding transmission … for the next two to three days and will (be) taking additional public health measures if the numbers of confirmed positive cases of variants of concern do not start to decline," the Ministry of Health said in a release.
Muhajarine suggested a short lockdown should be considered for Regina because of the rising variant cases.
The health authority said that starting Monday, people who are 64 years old will be able to get immunized against COVID-19 at the first vaccination drive-thru clinic in the city.
Muhajarine warned, however, that immunity doesn't happen overnight.
He also noted that even though vaccines have health experts and residents looking ahead to the next few months with optimism, it takes time to vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity.
"I fear for the short term," he said.
"What I fear now is that this is going to be followed by hospitalizations, ICU use and, unfortunately, deaths. We are almost like back to where we were in December."
Saskatchewan has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases per capita in Canada. Another 176 new infections were recorded Friday, along with three additional deaths. The Regina area had 471 of the province's 1,437 active infections.
Also on Friday, a long-term care home in the city said public health officials had declared an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility. An Extendicare spokeswoman said that as of Tuesday, four residents and two staff members had tested positive.
Laura Gallant said 95 per cent of Elmview residents had received the two required doses of vaccine. She said she couldn't reveal, due to privacy rules, if the four who became ill were immunized.
"COVID-19 vaccines are a powerful tool to strengthen our defence against the virus," she wrote in a statement to The Canadian Press.
"Until mass vaccination is completed and broader immunity is achieved in the community, the virus will continue to circulate and potentially enter homes. We must remain vigilant and use every available precaution to prevent the virus from reaching residents."
Gallant noted almost 90 per cent of the care home's staff had been given one shot, and about half had received both.
For weeks, COVID-19 rapid testing has been used on anyone entering the home, and all residents and staff are being tested, she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021
— With files from CTV Regina
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press