Saskatchewan's two ministers with health portfolios faced tough questions from doctors Friday about privatizing health services and the government's response to the fourth wave of COVID-19 — including criticism that the government is not taking a "multifaceted" approach to combating the disease.
"I think what's beyond frustrating for us is hearing you say that vaccination isn't working very well, but that's the only thing you're pushing forward," said Dr. Benjamin Leis, an assistant professor of general internal medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, to Paul Merriman and Everett Hindley.
Merriman, the minister of health, and Hindley, the minister of rural and remote health, were guests during a virtual question-and-answer session hosted by the Saskatchewan Medical Association, which has recently called on the government to bring in more measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
"Government leaders continue to ignore the advice of opposition, leaders of the medical profession," SMA president Dr. Eben Strydom said in the lead-up to the Q&A session.
Leis was reacting to comments Merriman and Hindley had made in response to Leis asking what the province is doing to prevent a fifth wave.
"We care passionately about delivering high-quality care and right now we can't because hospitals are overwhelmed," Leis said.
As of early Thursday, there were 96 people in Saskatchewan ICUs, plus 24 former Saskatchewan ICU patients under care in Ontario — far above the 79 ICU beds the province can normally muster.
"The truth is," Leis continued, "no one is calling Saskatchewan's response to the pandemic a success, except members of the current government. And so I'd like to hear what kind of things, in order of priority, the government is considering doing to prevent a fifth wave, which is looming, and also what kind of things could be done to promote vaccination of our most vulnerable populations, including children who will be eligible very soon for the vaccine?"
Merriman said that if everyone would get vaccinated, there would be no discussion of a fifth wave.
As of Thursday, 86 per cent of eligible people in the province had their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 79 per cent were fully vaccinated. Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, has said there is no reason why those numbers shouldn't stretch into the 90s.
Merriman said Saskatchewan will hold steady to its current crop of public health measures, but that if the province's COVID-19 indicators worsen, the government would look at modifying its approach.
"This is not stagnant," he said.
Merriman pointed to the province's proof-of-vaccination program and its plans, touted in recent days, to resume health services delayed by the fourth wave.
On the vaccine front, Merriman said the government will work with educators on upcoming efforts to vaccinate children aged 5 to 11.
He also addressed the issue of "hardcore anti-vaxxers."
"We're not going to move [them], unfortunately, but we're getting more and more of those fringe ones that are in between the hardcore [anti-]vaxxers and the people that have been vaccinated. So we're continuing to work on it where we're making it more and more uncomfortable for people to be unvaccinated."
Hindley shared a story about meeting a man from Swift Current who had COVID-19 this past spring and is "part of the protest crowd."
"A guy like that, you're just not going to convince, despite some of the local stories that are hitting closer and closer to home, tragic deaths that are occurring in our own community," Hindley said. "The one thing I say to people like that is, talk to your local health-care provider."
"It's beyond frustrating for us as politicians," he added.
'We are looking at private'
Dr. Sarah Miller, a general surgeon in Regina, said she had no ability to give her patients wait times for procedures.
"When they ask, I say, 'I have no idea,'" she told the ministers. "These aren't elective [surgeries]. They might not be life-threatening conditions, but they are hugely affecting to quality of life.
"For the last year, when [we] asked how we were going to catch up, we've been told repeatedly, 'It's a surge. Now's not the time to discuss this.'"
Miller also asked about the government's interest in using private health care resources.
Last September, the province and the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced they were spending an estimated $2 million on approximately 8,500 MRI and CT scans from private providers, plus providing an additional 2,300 scans in smaller hospitals.
"How are we going to make sure that this is equitable for all patients?" Miller said of privatization.
Merriman said the health system was still able to perform 88 per cent of planned surgeries in the last 12 months.
"Now we are going to be looking at other options," he said. "I met with [doctors] a couple of days ago to be able to discuss with them what some options might be. We are looking at private. We've announced that we're doing more scans in the private system. This is the time that we want to have all hands on deck. We also have a very fatigued health-care system."
Merriman said there are logistics the government needs to work through.
"There are some financial things that we have to discuss, but those conversations are happening," he said.
Dr. Alan Beggs, an orthopedic surgeon in Regina, said the government needs to focus on beefing up the supply of nurses as it moves to resume services because of "pre-existing [staff] shortfalls."
He also questioned Merriman's statement that 88 per cent of planned surgeries were performed.
"Being a surgeon, working with surgeons and representing surgeons, I am fully aware that none of the surgeons in Regina have come anywhere close to 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic numbers or productivity," Biggs said.
Merriman said the figure came from the SHA and referred to all surgeries, from cataracts to major procedures.
"It might be some of the day surgeries that made up the bulk of that number and maybe not on the orthopedic side. But I'll get someone from my office to follow up on where that number came from."