The Saskatchewan government is reducing the self-isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab announced Thursday.
Effective immediately, Saskatchewan residents who test positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for 10 days from when they were first symptomatic. Previously, the self-isolation period was 14 days.
"This change is being made on the basis of emerging evidence that shows that, for most people, they are not infectious 10 days after testing positive or the start of symptoms," Shahab said at a news conference Thursday.
"This allows COVID-positive people to return to their daily duties sooner if they're healthy."
There are exceptions for close contacts and international travellers, who must still self-isolate for 14 days. They can be fined $2,000 if they don't.
Close contacts of a positive case must self-isolate for 14 days because they may not show symptoms until two weeks after exposure, said Shahab, adding that a close contact who tests positive would then have to isolate for 10 more days.
Seven more COVID-19 deaths were announced in Saskatchewan Thursday, pushing the total since March to 105, with 54 having been announced since Dec. 1.
Public health officials also announced 238 new COVID-19 cases. The total of known active cases in Saskatchewan is now 3,978.
There are currently 126 hospitalizations due to COVID-19, including 22 patients in critical care.
Update on COVID-19 surge plan
The Saskatchewan Health Authority implemented another stage of its COVID-19 surge plan two weeks ago. The purpose of the plan is to prepare the health-care system to respond to COVID-19 hot spots, while providing other non-COVID-related health services where possible.
The health authority provided an update Thursday on how its approach is going so far.
The strategy seeks to secure the resources needed to take care of 250 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 64 patients in intensive care.
The health authority has secured the required resources for the hypothetical surge in hospitalizations, but the SHA says adequate staffing remains a barrier for a potential surge in ICU patients, especially in Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan.
High volumes of COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in long-term care facilities are diverting resources and forcing health-care workers to isolate, the SHA says.
The health authority will step up its COVID-19 testing by adding rapid and point-of-care testing, expanding testing operations in Regina and Saskatoon to seven days per week in January, and improving public messaging to highlight non-peak testing times.
Right now, the sustainable lab test capacity sits around 3,400 tests per day. The health authority expects that to increase to 4,000 by Dec. 31.
SHA is trying to increase contact tracing capacity to 562 cases per day. Tracers are meeting their target time of notifying people when they test positive, but are experiencing delays in notifying close contacts and monitoring positive cases, the authority says.
There are limited licensed health-care professionals available to notify positive cases and close contacts, the health authority said. But 206 unlicensed staff from Saskatchewan government ministries, the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency and Statistics Canada are helping with monitoring positive cases and close contacts.
The health authority is also trying to create pools in six areas of health-care workers who could be redeployed in the event of an outbreak. The target is about 300 to 400 staff total.
Since the current surge strategy came into effect on Dec. 3, 117 staff have been identified for redeployment, the SHA says. That figure does not include the 70 workers who were redeployed to handle the outbreak at Extendicare Parkside.
The health authority noted that it will continue looking for staff who could be moved elsewhere, especially for long-term care homes, as there is a "potential gap of thousands of staff if outbreaks continue to grow."
"Even if a fraction of [Saskatchewan's hospitals and care homes] experienced a similar challenge like Parkside, we would have to deploy hundreds of staff — potentially thousands — depending upon what response was required," health authority CEO Scott Livingstone said during Thursday's news conference.
Part of the current strategy includes slow downs of some specific health services. The SHA has approved slow downs for roughly 200 health-care services of the 900 services the health authority tracks. Through those, an additional 377 workers will be made available
"Service slowdowns are obviously a difficult [decision] to make. We know that any service reduction has a direct impact on patients and residents," Derek Miller, chief of emergency operations for the health authority, said at the news conference.
The health authority says it's continuing to look for potential slowdown areas, but services will continue until appropriate opportunities to redeploy staff are identified.
Slow downs are not supplying enough staff, however, so the health authority is looking at "external hiring, allocation of government personnel, reintegration of retired personnel and volunteers" to step up, the SHA said in a release.
There is a 35 per cent slow down in surgeries in Regina and Saskatoon, but Prince Albert and North Battleford are mainly limited to urgent, emergent and cancer surgeries.
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