Sask. chief medical health officer, politicians go weeks without public briefing on COVID-19

·3 min read
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Dr. Saqib Shahab shake hands at the final regularly scheduled COVID-19 update on July 7, 2021.  (CBC - image credit)
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Dr. Saqib Shahab shake hands at the final regularly scheduled COVID-19 update on July 7, 2021. (CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's leaders have not held a public update dedicated to COVID-19 since July 7, 2021, despite skyrocketing case numbers and stalling vaccine uptake.

As the situation worsens, some are asking why Premier Scott Moe, Minister of Health Paul Merriman and Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab have not addressed the public.

"I'm frankly very disappointed. I think Premier Moe seemed to assume on July 11 that we essentially were beyond risk of any further wave and really just sort of signed off on the file," said Dr. Dennis Kendel, a health policy consultant.

Kendel said circumstances have changed: the delta variant is surging and kids who aren't protected by vaccines are heading back to class.

"It's a time where you expect your leaders to be engaged, and actually letting people know that they're aware of what's happening and making some explicit recommendations."

There were 244 new cases reported Friday and 190 new cases the day prior, according to government data. These numbers mark the highest daily increases since May.

Chief medical health officers in provinces like British Columbia and Alberta provided COVID-19 briefings throughout summer.

Kendel said it had been reassuring to have Shahab, the province's most senior public health official, so engaged in the first three waves of the pandemic, even if Kendel didn't always agree with Shahab's decisions. Now Kendel is concerned.

"He's just been completely out of sight and silent."

CBC asked the province why officials have not held a COVID-19-specific news conference since July.

"As Premier Moe stated, the July 7, 2021, press conference was the last regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefing," Moe's press secretary said. "The Ministry of Health and the Saskatchewan Health Authority continue to publicly report COVID-19 statistics through the use of the online dashboard, which is updated with up-to-date information on a daily basis.

"Officials including Premier Moe, Minister Merriman and Dr. Saqib Shahab have spoken to media, including the CBC, on several occasions and have addressed questions regarding COVID-19."

Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman have answered COVID-19-related questions at unrelated news conferences. Merriman was also interviewed on CBC's The Morning Edition.

Shahab has not spoken with CBC directly since July 7. CBC requested clarification on what other media outlets Shahab has spoken to about COVID-19 in that time. The spokesperson did not provide clarification by end of day Friday.

The province's communications staff have also declined multiple requests from CBC to interview Shahab, cabinet ministers, and officials representing the Ministry of Health or the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

University of Regina researcher Sean Tucker has been tracking the number of COVID-19-specific news briefings that governments in Western Canada have been holding. Saskatchewan is dead last.

Tucker is a University of Regina occupational health and safety researcher. He's been looking at COVID in the workplace: how it affects worker safety and how the fourth wave could disrupt businesses.

As cases started rising across Western Canada, Tucker started paying attention to how western provinces were distributing information and how that might affect people.

"It's just more challenging for organizations to adopt mitigation measures when there are no public health orders," he said.

Tucker said people have been responding to his data charts, asking where Shahab has been. Tucker noted there are several others who could also update the public, including leaders from the Saskatchewan Health Authority or the deputy chief medical health officer.

Tucker said there are plenty of people who could answer questions and provide insight into modelling. However, as it stands, Saskatchewan people — from parents to employers — have been left without transparent leadership, he said.

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