More than 280 doctors have signed a letter calling on the Saskatchewan government to expand the public health measures being used in Regina to the rest of the province and change the vaccine rollout to prioritize frontline workers.
The letter said the province should immediately vaccine health-care workers and essential workers — such as teachers and grocery store employees — bringing the provincial rollout in line with recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).
Dr. Ayisha Kurji said her and other physicians have watched what has unfolded across the province and felt the need to voice their concerns.
"The number of hospitalizations, they're going up again. ICU admissions are going up. It's high in Regina, but it's across the province now as well. We're seeing more cases in younger people, and I think that's really scary to me," Kurji said.
As of March 8, 206 people were in hospital with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, 41 of them in intensive case. Kurji pointed to how there are more people in the ICU aged 20 to 50 than before.
"That really scares me because it tells me that COVID is changing," Kurji said. "Right across the country, everyone is seeing younger and younger people being affected."
Kurji said vaccines are the end game in the pandemic, but with the virus affecting more younger people, it's outpacing the current rollout.
"Our strategy to date has actually been really, really good," she said. "But now that we see that the age group that's coming into hospital and ICU is younger, we need to find ways to start to immunize those groups."
Premier Scott Moe said Friday that he has read the physician's letter and understands what it is asking for. He said the province will take it under guidance along with other factors.
Moe said the government will be discussing if restrictions need to be expanded over the next few days.
"I think there's broad support for the restrictions that are in place," Moe told reporters on Friday afternoon. "We mustn't forget that there are significant restrictions in place."
Moe said there are 3,000 physicians in the province and various ones have signed on to various letters, but that the decision is up to Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, and he'll take their input into consideration.
"They're variants that are really transmissible, really infectious and are causing problems with our hospital's capacity. So I think we have to admit that [measures] are not working anymore," Kurji said.
Kurji said it also takes time to vaccinate people and for vaccinated people to develop immunity. She said we can't afford to keep seeing the numbers climb while we wait for that to happen.
"We're just going to have a lot of collateral damage, a lot of lives lost along the way and that's not OK," she said.
The letter also calls for paid sick leave and economic support for essential workers. Kurji said this would allow people to stay home and be tested if they're feeling unwell.
"They need the money. So they'll keep going even if they're sick, because it's a matter of paying rent or providing food for your family," Kurji said. "That's not fair and that's not right."
Sask. Medical Association and Canadian Medical Association join the call
The Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) president and Canadian Medical Association have released similar letters.
SMA president Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz said in a letter that she is gravely concerned that the government's refusal to immediately vaccinate essential workers will result in more lost lives and long-term illness due to COVID-19.
"The virus is adapting. We ask the government to show flexibility and adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic," Konstantynowicz said in the letter.
The letter said Konstantynowicz had advised Health Minister Paul Merriman on the urgent need to vaccinate all physicians and health-care workers. On Tuesday, Minister Merriman and Premier Scott Moe both confirmed the government was not changing the current the age-based system.
Konstantynowicz said this fails to account for the acceleration of VOCs and cases among young people. She also called for further measures to reduce community transmission.
Dr. Ann Collins, CMA president, called for increased public health measures and for the province to change the rollout plan in a letter on April 8. She said essential workers need to be prioritized along with primary care professionals.
"Canadians are facing continually changing rules and measures, which is making it confusing and frustrating. It's time to apply what we know and address these new variants with the same aggressiveness they are displaying," Collins said.
"Facing the new variants requires a new and co-ordinated approach to regain control."
Kurji said planning the vaccine rollout is a difficult job, but it should be about who is at the highest risk — front-line workers. She said the Regina measures are a good step, but they need to be expanded provincewide.
"We also know that the variants that are not just the Regina problem, are not just in southern Saskatchewan," she said. "We need to tackle it together."