School mask mandate 'probably not a feasible thing' right now in Sask., says Dr. Shahab

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, told reporters he doubts schools and medical health officers want a mask mandate, and questions whether a mandate would have an impact at all. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, told reporters he doubts schools and medical health officers want a mask mandate, and questions whether a mandate would have an impact at all. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's top doctor is not looking at school mask mandates, despite rising influenza case counts in the province and calls for more mask-wearing elsewhere.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, told reporters Tuesday that such a mandate "probably is not a feasible thing at this point," although it is never completely off the table.

"I don't think schools or medical health officers would like to go there, because really, at this point, it may not be that helpful in any case," Shahab said during a news conference.

He said his doubts stem, in part, from the fact that there is more than just COVID-19 circulating this fall. Shahab also noted that students could expose themselves through extracurricular activities or other socializing outside of school.

Schools should be mask-friendly, however, and accommodate students who may have underlying risk factors so that they feel comfortable wearing a mask there, Shahab said.

Rising cases of respiratory illnesses — particularly among children — and increasing demand in hospitals and emergency rooms have pushed medical professionals in other jurisdictions to call for more mask use.

On Monday, doctors in Quebec issued a professional order urging people to wear masks, and the Ontario government issued a "strong" recommendation that people wear them.

But Saskatchewan doesn't appear to be going that route. Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman told reporters Monday that he and Shahab have not discussed mask mandates.

"I don't think we have to have mask mandates," Merriman said. "It's everybody's own decision whether they want to be able to do that."

Merriman said he was unaware of any school outbreaks, and that implementing a mask mandate would also require a discussion with the education minister.

Shahab said he is hearing about absenteeism rates in schools, with the rates varying depending on the size of the school or community. One school in a small community, he said, has about 60 per cent of students out sick.

He said he hopes to have a provincial absenteeism rate in the next community respiratory illness surveillance program (CRISP) report.

In the meantime, he suggested people stay home if they're sick, get immunized for COVID-19 and influenza, and wear masks based on their personal risk.

Only send kids to ER if necessary: Shahab

Emergency rooms and primary care centres in Saskatchewan are seeing an increase in patients, Shahab said.

Hospitals are dealing with typical flu season pressures, Shahab said, in addition to pressure from COVID-19 that isn't going away.

"All of that adds up," Shahab said.

Saskatchewan's latest CRISP report suggests COVID-19 transmission had dipped slightly, but influenza cases were on the rise, as of Nov. 5.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, Saskatchewan's COVID-19 PCR test-positivity rate was 9.9 per cent. Provincial data does not include positive rapid test results.

Matt Duguid/CBC
Matt Duguid/CBC

That same week, 192 flu cases were identified — up from the 68 cases found from Oct. 23 to Oct. 29.

The provincial influenza test-positivity rate from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5 was 21.8 per cent, driven mainly by a high test-positivity rate in the Saskatchewan Health Authority's northeast region, which includes Melfort, Sask., and the surrounding area.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, there were 22 Saskatchewan residents who died from COVID-19, while 164 people were admitted to hospital with the illness — a decrease of 30 from the previous reporting week — and 15 were placed in ICU — an increase of five from the week prior.

Nobody in Saskatchewan has died from influenza so far this season, the report says. But from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, there were 16 people admitted to hospital and four people sent to an intensive care unit.

CRISP reports do not show the number of people currently in hospital or intensive care units.

Shahab said he was unable to speak to the specific capacity that pediatric units have right now, but explained that they typically have fewer beds because most children don't get seriously ill.

"I'm sure the [Saskatchewan Health Authority] is planning to increase pediatric capacity as required, especially given that other jurisdictions are seeing," he said.

He urged parents to only take their children in if they do require acute care. Symptoms to watch for include the child not eating or drinking, fussiness, drowsiness, rapid breathing, a high fever that isn't going away, or one that went away then came back.

Shahab encouraged parents to at least consider getting their children immunized for influenza this year because most kids haven't contracted the illness since the pandemic started, thus they may not have built up immunity through infection.

Fifteen per cent of Saskatchewan residents had received their flu shot as of Nov. 5, the latest CRISP report says.