Sask. government bets on compliance as it hits record hospitalizations, leads country in per-capita cases

·5 min read

Saskatchewan health officials called the province's battle against COVID-19 "critical" and the situation in hospitals "fragile" this week, but the provincial government has not implemented further restrictions as seen in other provinces.

Saskatchewan surpassed Alberta this week to become the leader in active cases per capita. Saskatchewan has also seen 65 deaths in the first two weeks of 2021 — amounting to 30 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths over the past 10 months.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said Thursday it has reached 95 per cent capacity in ICUs around the province.

As of Thursday, 82 people were in ICU in the province — 34 were COVID-19 patients.

"Our health-care system is at its most fragile point during the pandemic," SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said Thursday.

He said to keep the health system operating and to ensure a "smart, fast immunization program" the public needs to "double down on their efforts."

Saskatchewan reached other milestones this week: an all-time high for hospitalizations at 210 and a seven-day daily new case average of 321.

The seven-day average increased by 21 per cent week-to-week.

On Friday, Saskatchewan reported 386 more cases.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said Wednesday that the government is hopeful the spike in new cases is temporary and caused by the Christmas holidays.

"We've been able to find that balance between restrictions and allowing people to live out their lives and be able to go to work and do what they would do back in December."

The rising numbers have not inspired Premier Scott Moe to implement further restrictions.

On Tuesday, the government extended existing measures for two weeks until January 29.

He called the current measures "not insignificant."

In recent months, Moe has resisted even a partial or short-term "lockdown."

"If we're not able to start to bend this trajectory down by the end of January, Dr. Shahab may have some more difficult decisions to make," Moe said Tuesday.

But it is not Shahab's decision what will ultimately be implemented. That decision is up to Moe and his government. It has been established that Shahab and his team presents options to the government, which then makes the final call.

Shahab told CBC in November, "I issue recommendations and suggest regulatory changes, but the government has to implement them."

Status quo, for now

On Thursday, the province released modelling for the first time since mid-November.

It showed that by Jan. 25, the number of new cases could rise sharply to around 900 — or even as high as approximately 1,600 if there is a "low uptake of public health measures."

The predictions were based on trends from Dec. 25 to Jan. 12.

Shahab said this week that "universal compliance" with health orders is necessary, otherwise more restrictions will have to be put in place.

He said he would speak with Health Minister Paul Merriman about options next week if cases continue on their current trajectory.

Shahab has said in the past that 250 cases or more per day would risk the health-care system.

Saskatchewan average daily cases were below that threshold between Dec. 16 and Jan. 6.

Government of Saskatchewan
Government of Saskatchewan

On two occasions this week, when asked about implementing new measures, Shahab said it is not as simple as picking one and knowing it will drive down transmission.

Shahab said he consults with his counterparts in other provinces to see how their measures are working. He said his office maintains a database of how COVID-19 is being transmitted.

"The bulk of the cases right now seem to be social connections among individuals."

He said one option, which the government is choosing to follow for now, is asking people to follow the guidelines and "slow things down" by restricting their outings and interactions.

"The other option is the hammer approach where you close everything down. Obviously, you see a reduction but there is a significant impact. Social, economic, mental health," Shahab said.

Provincial strategies differ

That hammer approach has been implemented in Ontario, where the province introduced a stay-at-home-order this week.

As of Thursday, Ontario residents have to stay home except for essential purposes such as grocery shopping, accessing health care and exercising.

"Our province is in crisis," Premier Doug Ford said this week, responding to new modelling numbers.

"The system is on the brink of collapse. It's on the brink of being overwhelmed."

Quebec has instituted a month-long curfew which requires residents to be in their homes between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

"The police will also be very visible," the province's Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said in a tweet last week. "Let's stay at home, save lives."

Those without a valid reason to be out between those hours could face fines of $1,000 to $6,000.

Vianney Leudière/Radio-Canada
Vianney Leudière/Radio-Canada

Manitoba had led the country in cases per-capita in November. This week it extended restrictions including a ban on most gatherings at homes — including in private yards — and public gatherings of more than five people.

Maintoba's restrictions also include:

  • A ban on in-person dining.

  • A ban on in-person religious services.

  • Retail businesses can only sell essential items.

  • Personal services like salons must close.

On Dec. 8, Alberta ordered the closure of all casinos and gyms, banned dine-in service at restaurants and bars, banned all outdoor and indoor social gatherings and imposed mandatory work-from-home measures.

At the time, Alberta led the country in active cases and active cases per capita.