Saskatchewan's Scott Moe says he didn't mean to disparage with work from home comment

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REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he didn't intend to disparage anyone when he said those calling on his government to introduce tougher COVID-19 restrictions are people who can work from home.

Moe made the comment in a speech to municipal leaders during a virtual convention earlier this week.

He says he was questioning whether advocates for stronger health restrictions that would close businesses had thought about what effect it would have on employees who can't work remotely.

Moe says he should have addressed the impact that lifting restrictions would have on health-care workers.

The premier says he stands by his words — but he didn't mean to upset front-line health workers or people who are working from home.

He rejects the idea that his comments fuelled a split between those who want to see public-health rules loosened and supporters of tougher measures.

"We're not going to just open this up. That would be entirely disrespectful to those folks that are going to work every day, are on the front-lines treating patients that may or may not have COVID," he said Wednesday.

Moe said his Saskatchewan Party government is trying to strike a balance between controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus and keeping as many people at work as possible.

In terms of the spread, health officials estimate there are about 18,700 people in Saskatchewan who are infected with COVID-19 but are not showing symptoms.

The Ministry of Health and the Saskatchewan Health Authority say the figure was calculated as part of its modelling to help the province plan its acute-care response to the pandemic.

They say the Jan. 30 estimate, released this week, was put together using different metrics, including case numbers and hospitalizations, and shows why health orders need to be followed even if people think they don't have the virus.

“There are still a lot of questions ... on what asymptomatic infections look like and what they mean in regards to transmission," said virologist Jason Kindrachuk of the University of Manitoba.

"Can they still spread the virus? Yes. Do we necessarily know how much? No."

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada and on Wednesday added another 180 more infections to its caseload. Two more residents died.

Health officials say the number of asymptomatic people in the province is about two per cent of the population at any given time.

Kindrachuk said it's difficult to figure out the difference between people who are infected with COVID-19 — but have no symptoms — and those who are pre-symptomatic.

Doctors and health experts are trying to better understand the transmission of more contagious COVID-19 variants, like the mutation found in the United Kingdom, and determine what makes them easier to spread, he said.

So far, three cases of the U.K. variant have been detected in Saskatchewan, but the province says all were travel-related and there is no evidence of community spread.

Alberta and Manitoba have also reported the presence of more concerning variants.

Health officials say the seven-day average of new daily infections in Saskatchewan is hovering slightly above 200, with almost that many people in hospital, 28 of them in intensive care.

Kindrachuk said it's imperative that policy-makers in the province and beyond closely track how variants move in a community to avoid any spread from getting out of control.

"We can't rely on vaccination alone to get us through this. Certainly, it's a part of the equation, but we have to do a lot at the community level to try and curb transmission."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press