Saskatchewan's vaccine rollout is progressing quicker than expected all while more transmissible variants of concern continue to emerge in Regina.
The province is administering shots faster than others, with more than 90 per cent of doses received being administered.
The real key in protecting the most vulnerable and guarding against virus variants, according to the government, is getting a high vaccine uptake among residents.
As of Thursday, the government said there was an 80 per cent uptake among those who have had access to immunization so far, accounting for bookings for future appointments and actual vaccinations.
Here are the vaccination rates as of March 17:
People who are 80+
1st doses = 27,348 or 53 per cent.
2nd doses = 7,404 or 14 per cent.
People who are 70-79
1st doses = 15,136 or 19 per cent.
2nd doses = 3,785 or 5 per cent.
The province's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said he would like to see 75 to 80 per cent uptake at a population level by the end of May and June to "really have the confidence to open things up gradually and safely.
"What we really need, as your age group opens up, we really need to see a higher vaccine uptake, you know, 85 per cent or higher."
Shahab called on the public to fill up vaccination spots.
"As residents of Saskatchewan, we need to continue to challenge the Saskatchewan Health Authority to make them run out of appointments and vaccines and really create that demand," he said.
Health Minister Paul Merriman echoed his call, saying, "We want to keep the vaccine lines full. We want to keep the appointments full so we can get through this again as fast as we possibly can."
Shahab said earlier in the week that vaccination rates among some staff at long-term care facilities were not high enough.
"We need people to step forward, like in some long-term care facilities, staff vaccination rates are lower than 90 per cent, maybe 60 or 70 per cent. Resident vaccination rates are 90 per cent or higher. So that's great."
Shahab said with the presence of virus variants escalating in Regina specifically, the vaccines have shown to protect the most at-risk in other countries.
The provincial government has adjusted its vaccine strategy to focus on those over 60 in the Regina area by offering the AstraZeneca vaccine via drive thru to everyone 60 to 69 as of Thursday evening.
Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), said mobile immunization clinics will open up in the next couple of days for residents in Regina's inner city aged 60 to 64.
Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease infectious physician with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, called the online and phone booking system "rock-solid." He said the focus is on continuing to ramp up aggressively while supply increases.
"Real-world efficacy of all of these vaccines is incredibly good, even better than a lot of us truly believed it would be."
Wong has recently started to communicate his expertise on social media to provide facts and reliable information to the public on issue like vaccines and variants of concern.
He said without those 40 and under getting vaccinated with a first dose and eventually a second, the province will not get to 60 or 70 per cent of protection from the virus. He said experts are moving away from the term "herd immunity" and toward "herd protection" because many countries are behind on vaccination, and the coronavirus variants may require additional booster shots.
'We need to buy some time,' says Wong
This week, Shahab said he was "surprised" by how the variants of concern (VOC) have been more contagious within the province, Wong agreed, saying the VOCs took hold faster in Regina than many anticipated.
Shahab said the variants have shown to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible and more dangerous according to evidence from other jurisdictions.
Wong said Saskatchewan has lagged behind transmission from other larger jurisdictions throughout the pandemic but the VOCs have taken hold here at a faster rate.
As of Thursday, Regina accounted for 85 per cent of presumed variants cases and 90 per cent of confirmed cases in the province.
"People need to understand that this is a different threat, the greatest threat the province is facing. It is already here in a large population centre in such high proportions means it's going to inevitably spread much more quickly than we otherwise thought," Wong said.
Wong said a "slowdown" rather than a "lockdown" is needed to reduce the contacts people have to try and lower the cases and transmission of VOCs.
"We really need to buy some time right now."
Wong said an "all-in" shut down like the province saw last March doesn't make sense right now and would not be welcomed by residents.
Wong said without some mandated "targeted" measures it's unlikely to get the number of contacts down to help manage the virus variants spreading.