(Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Saskatchewan health officials made two changes to COVID-19 testing guidelines this week and both signal a concern for the potential threat variants pose to the province.
On Wednesday, the province announced that anyone with symptoms should go for a test immediately. Previous guidance asked people to isolate for 48 hours before seeking a test to guard against a false negative.
On Thursday, the province recommended that anyone travelling outside provincial borders seek a test immediately upon return and then to take a second test one week later.
In both cases, COVID-19 variants were cited as the reason behind the change.
The variants of concern, first found in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa, have been shown to be more transmissible.
Every province has had at least one case of a variant. Saskatchewan has identified three as of Friday.
In each case, the province said there was no evidence of community spread.
As of Thursday, Alberta had identified 239 variant cases. As of Friday, Manitoba had identified four.
Saskatchewan's travel recommendation comes near the end of the province's winter break, when many children are off school. It is a time many families traditionally travel.
Last month, Manitoba introduced a mandatory self-isolation order for anyone travelling into the province. Premier Brian Pallister said the order was out of concern for variants. Exceptions were made for those travelling for work or medical reasons, and people living in border communities who need to travel for essential reasons.
Evidence of variant spread prompted the Newfoundland and Labrador government to impose a lockdown.
"The rapid rise of cases in a previously well-controlled situation in Newfoundland and Labrador is a testament to how quickly things can change when more contagious variants are introduced," Canada's chief medical health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said earlier this week.
Tam said the "rapid" response from the province is what is needed to stop a variant of concern "in its tracks."
"With the emergence and spread of new variants of concern, we are cautioned that unless we maintain and abide by stringent public health measures, we may not be able to avert a reacceleration of the epidemic in Canada," Tam said Friday.
"These variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up."
The same concern may have also led the province to extend its restrictions for a third consecutive month.
On January 27, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said the presence of the variant would not immediately trigger new measures in the province. He recommended against travel for non-essential reasons and called an isolation policy similar to Manitoba's "not practical."
On Tuesday, Shahab said the measures currently in place "don't work" for variants of concern and would need to "tighten up."
Shahab said some studies have shown the variants to be 60 to 70 per cent more transmissible. He said for that reason, they are more lethal, because more infected people means more people requiring hospitalization. Shahab said that is what happened once the United Kingdom exited a lockdown and was hit with a third wave.
He said the positive is the impact the vaccine is having both in the U.K. and Israel in bringing down hospitalizations and guarding against the impact of the variant.
"We remain very cautious. We keep the numbers low until our vaccination program has had the opportunity to protect the most vulnerable, 60-plus and then 50-plus."
On Wednesday, when the province announced it was recommending anyone with symptoms to get tested immediately, it said the change was due to "recent guidance from the European Centre for Disease Control and the increased risk of variants of concern in Canada."
The province's recommendation that travellers returning to the province get tested upon return and again after seven days was made the next day.
"Our strong recommendation against out of province travel is due to the unnecessary risk that you put yourself in and your family in the exposure of COVID-19 variants in other areas of Canada," Moe said following a tour of a mass immunization centre in Regina.
"We know no one wants to bring a different variant back to Saskatchewan and introduce it to their friends in their community. So please, if you have been outside of the province on your return, go get tested."
Moe said touring the immunization venue was a reminder that the best thing anyone can do to get back to normal life is get vaccinated.
On Tuesday, Moe said Saskatchewan is aiming to boost variant surveillance.
Only three people in Saskatchewan have tested positive for the B117 variant first found in the U.K. All the cases were linked to recent travel. No other variant cases have been announced since Feb. 5.
Shahab said the province currently screens three per cent of samples for variants and is attempting to increase to six per cent.
Moe said the SHA is working on a "licensing process" to increase the samples it screens from six per cent to 10 per cent.
Shahab said variant testing currently happens at the national lab in Winnipeg and can take up to two weeks. He said positive cases linked to travel, outbreaks and people under 50 who have been hospitalized are selected for the testing.
Saskatchewan Health Authority said two people currently conducting COVID PCR testing in the province would be tapped to instead carry out the genomic sequencing needed to identify variant cases.
Shahab said some countries in Europe are testing up to 25 per cent of samples. Provincial health officials have previously cited cost and manpower as impediments to testing every single sample.
"Obviously, no jurisdiction can sample 100 per cent," Shahab said.
Health Minister Paul Merriman (left) and Premier Scott Moe tour the mass vaccination clinic at the International Trade Centre at Regina's Evraz Place on Thursday.
On Friday, the Saskatchewan NDP called on the government to outline its plan to deal with variants.
"With multiple coronavirus variants now circulating in Canada and public health officials in other provinces sounding the alarm about a potential third wave, the Premier and the Minister of Health need to let the people of Saskatchewan know what they are doing to protect families," said health critic Vicki Mowat.
"The stakes are high. A third wave could overwhelm our already stretched and stressed health-care system."
One of the measures the NDP called for was increased rapid testing in schools, long-term care facilities, high-risk communities and workplaces.
Last week, Moe pledged to send out thousands of unused rapid tests to places like Indigenous communities, schools and correctional facilities.