As Saskatchewan steadily breaks COVID-19 records, the province's top doctor warned of a grim end to the year while the health minister urged residents to "get vaccinated as soon as possible," reiterating that vaccines are the way out of the pandemic.
During an afternoon news conference on Wednesday, Paul Merriman said new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are "overwhelmingly" among those who have not yet received their shots.
Merriman last addressed the media on Aug. 25, when he had said that although there were signs the province was entering a fourth wave of the pandemic, the provincial government was not prepared to mandate vaccinations.
Since then, 90 people with COVID-19 have died in Saskatchewan, the number of people hospitalized has increased by 203 and ICU admissions have risen by 45.
On Tuesday, Saskatchewan recorded one of its worst days in the pandemic, breaking multiple COVID-19-related records.
COVID-related hospitalizations and ICU admissions in the province have nearly tripled in the last month, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
"The choice to not get vaccinated is not just affecting you," Merriman said, adding that "life is going to get more difficult" for people not yet vaccinated, as the province's proof-of-vaccination policy takes effect Friday.
'Fall and winter of misery'
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Saskatchewan is heading toward a "fall and winter of misery." At the current rate, he said, there may not be large holiday gatherings this year.
"We will not only not have Thanksgiving at this rate, we will likely not have Christmas and New Years at this rate," Shahab said.
"If things don't change, maybe other public health orders will be required," he added, noting it will be up to the government to decide what policies are put in place.
While Saskatchewan schools have reported dozens of COVID-19 cases since the semester began, Shahab said schools "are not the source of transmission."
Unvaccinated households are driving transmissions that are ending up in schools, he said.
One-third of cases in Saskatchewan are among school-aged children.
Wednesday's COVID-19 update came shortly after the Canadian Medical Association called for lockdowns in both Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Meanwhile, Ottawa has offered to help Saskatchewan battle its COVID-19 surge.
Premier Scott Moe said his government has not requested that the federal government send military or health-care workers to support the COVID-19 battle in hospitals, but has discussed other areas of potential assistance, including increased access to rapid self-tests and making such tests free.
Saskatchewan's Opposition NDP is calling on the province to release its pandemic modelling, secure support from the federal government and modify the current isolation orders for children in schools.
'I absolutely do take responsibility for everything'
When asked by a reporter Wednesday if he wanted to apologize for the government's handling of the pandemic amid this latest surge of cases, Merriman said he takes "responsibility for everything." But he also said he didn't regret not putting in policies to increase vaccine uptake earlier.
"I take everything as minister of health as my responsibility. And ultimately, it does land on my desk," Merriman said.
"I absolutely do take responsibility for everything. The good, the bad and everything in between that happens within the health-care system."
The minister was also asked why more restrictions haven't been implemented yet.
"It's an extremely challenging situation. We've never seen this before," Merriman said. "Public health measures are extremely important, but that's not going to get us to the end of the pandemic — vaccines will."
Merriman also said he'll consider a request by Saskatoon city council to institute a public health order limiting gathering sizes in that city when it's brought forward.