The Saskatchewan government released more details Thursday on its "aggressive" plan to revive health-care services delayed by the fourth wave of COVID-19.
A total of 860 Saskatchewan Health Authority workers were redeployed to new areas during the deadly fourth wave as hospitals were overwhelmed with ICU patients infected with COVID-19 — to the point where 28 patients had to be moved to Ontario to receive proper intensive care.
Now, as the numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases in the province are waning, some of those workers will return to their regular positions beginning next week, allowing some health services to resume in communities, said Derek Miller, the SHA's emergency operations lead.
Exactly how many services will restart, and when, is unclear.
"I think that is still to be determined," said Marlo Pritchard, the president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, which has taken over the regular COVID-19 news conferences from the provincial government.
Several figures were shared Thursday to illustrate how staff redeployments during the fourth wave — meant to strengthen the province's ICU capacity and curb the spread of COVID-19 — have delayed normal, non-COVID procedures.
Premier Scott Moe said 35,000 surgeries are backed up. Miller said that at the beginning of the fourth wave up to 350 types of services were slowed down.
A visitor brought to the legislative assembly Thursday by the Opposition Saskatchewan NDP helped put a face to the numbers.
Dallas Oberik said she's been waiting nearly three years for a hip replacement, a wait elongated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Oberik appeared to place the blame on both Saskatchewan residents and the provincial government.
"If everybody had done their part, we wouldn't be here today. If everybody stayed this way," she said, spreading her hands to illustrate proper physical distancing, "[the virus] would die."
Later she added the current situation has to sit at the doorstep of Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman, because "their policies, and whatever they've done over the past two years with the virus, has directly impacted on where we are today."
Moe came to speak with Oberik following her comments. The conversation turned to Saskatchewan's unvaccinated. As of Thursday, 86 per cent of eligible people had their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 79 per cent were fully vaccinated.
Oberik: I don't know how you're going to get them turned around so that they will get vaccinated. Some of them are really embedded...
Oberik: ...in their belief that it's not something that they're going to do. However you handle it, it needs to be stepped up pretty quickly because we've got people dying. I don't want to be one of them. I'm old. And I don't want this virus.
Moe: I understand. And I wanted to provide you with that assurance that this is a priority for us. Take care and thank you for coming today. I appreciate it.
Moe told reporters he also assured Oberik that getting caught up on surgeries "is of the highest priority for this government."
Ryan Meili, the leader the Saskatchewan NDP, again called on the province to impose gathering limits to reduce COVID-19 transmission, which he said would return the health system to normal faster.
Moe said there are no plans to do so.
Timeline for bringing workers back
Pritchard with the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency said that by the end of November, hundreds of redeployed workers will be back to their old jobs.
"This will provide immediate capacity to resume any community services impacted by the fourth wave of COVID," he said. "Goals have been set to resume as many services as possible."
Out of the total 860 redeployed workers, about 450 are helping with contact tracing, testing assessment and outbreak management, Miller with the Saskatchewan Health Authority said.
Those 450 workers will be gradually returned to their normal jobs: 50 per cent next week, 75 per cent the week after and 90 per cent by the end of the month, Miller said.
Redeployed workers currently staffing ICUs, acute care areas and vaccination efforts will remain where they are, Pritchard said.
After Saskatchewan's third wave, the number of people tasked by the province with contact tracing was reduced, complicating contact tracing efforts at the start of the fourth wave.
Meili said he doesn't want that to happen again.
"We have to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time," he said. "We have to be able to keep the health system going and respond to COVID-19."
Pritchard said work continues to contract third-party contact tracers.