After disappearing from the media radar for more than a month, Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman was grilled by journalists on Wednesday about his whereabouts since Aug. 25 and his responsibility during the province's fourth wave of COVID-19.
On Tuesday Saskatchewan recorded one of its worst days in the COVID-19 pandemic, while breaking another ICU record on Wednesday.
"I absolutely do take responsibility for everything, the good, the bad and everything in between that happens within the health care system," said Merriman, who stopped short of an apology when asked about it by reporters.
Saskatchewan's health minister said he takes all his responsibilities as well as the current COVID-19 situation seriously, even though he hasn't been addressing the media in person for over a month.
"There hasn't been a day this year where I haven't been in contact with my officials, with my chief of staff, with people within the healthcare system," he said.
"It's the first thing that I wake up to in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to bed if I happen to sleep that night."
When asked about his specific whereabouts in the last couple of weeks, Merriman said he has been in Saskatoon and Regina, dealing with COVID-19 as well as non-pandemic related health care issues.
"I will make myself more available in the future to the media," said Merriman.
Public health restrictions
Back in August, however, Merriman announced that the Sask. government was not prepared to mandate vaccinations because it would infringe on "people's personal rights."
On Wednesday, Merriman didn't say he regretted not putting in public health measures to increase vaccine uptake earlier.
"We made that decision at that point in time of where we were and what we saw coming on the horizon," he said.
It is not the government's intent to implement "the most strict restrictions" immediately, according to Merriman.
"There's been a lot that has changed between that point and this point in time. That's why we have changed our course."
Throughout the press conference, the health minister kept referring back to vaccination as the solution out of the pandemic. The majority of people currently being treated in hospitals or testing positive are unvaccinated people, he said.
"If we had 200,000 people that went and got vaccinated in the next 28 days, that would have the biggest impact on our health care system," said Merriman.
"Public health measures are extremely important, but that's not going to get us to the end of this pandemic, the vaccines are."
Potential help from the federal government or other provinces
As of Wednesday, Saskatchewan was leading the provinces in rate of cases with 559 per 100,000 people over the last 14 days.
According to the Canadian government, only the rate of cases in the Northwest Territories, 753 per 100,000 people, and on First Nations reserves, 570 per 100,000 population, were higher in the country.
When asked how much longer Merriman would wait to ask for help to come to Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan health minister said the province has already reached out to the federal government regarding several issues, including access to rapid testing kits.
"We've been working with the federal government since day one of this and we continue to do that," he said.
Saskatchewan is also touching base with other provinces to see if they could provide help if needed, according to Merriman. However, he did not provide a concrete hospitalization or case number that would trigger additional requests for help.
"We're not at that point right now, but we are looking out into the future to see what's available out there and where we could ... put some patients if we had to."
Reaction from the opposition
In a reaction to Merriman's first press conference in 35 days, Saskatchewan's Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said the provincial health minister should have resigned.
"He should have announced today that he's asking for federal help to relieve the overwhelming pressure in our hospitals," said Meili in a written statement.
"He should have announced a plan to bring back isolation requirements for kids in our schools who get COVID-19."
Merriman's reappearance and announcement of rapid testing kits being provided to Saskatchewan by the federal government in two weeks was nothing to celebrate, said the Saskatchewan NDP leader, calling the pandemic the "worst health-care crisis in the history of our province."