The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) says it's investigating the death of a health-care worker as people grieve the loss of a North Battleford continuing care aide who had recently tested positive for COVID-19.
"The SHA offers its condolences to the family, friends and co-workers of a staff member who died Monday in North Battleford," a spokesperson said.
While the SHA did not name the worker, he has been identified by a friend as 34-year-old Tom Thomas.
"He was a very caring person and a hard-working guy," Thomas's friend Don Paul told The Morning Edition on Thursday.
If Thomas's death is confirmed as having been related to COVID-19, it would mark the first known COVID-19 death among any health-care worker in Saskatchewan.
"To date, we have not had any confirmed COVID-19 deaths among health care workers," the SHA spokesperson said.
CUPE Local 5430, the union that represented Thomas, called his death a devastating loss.
"A dedicated father and husband was taken from us at such a young age," the union said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
"In memory of Tom, we are offering continuing gratitude to the many CUPE front-line workers, in every sector and in every region of our province, who are still putting their lives on the line and going to work every day."
Premier Scott Moe also offered his condolences.
"This is a young fellow, a hero on the front lines of delivering health care in the province," Moe said during a Thursday news conference on plans to mass-vaccinate Saskatchewan citizens once supplies of the vaccine improve.
Died in emergency room, friend says
Paul said Thomas worked as an aide at Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford and that Thomas believed he may have been exposed to the virus at the hospital early in February — only 24 hours after being given his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to the SHA, a COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the hospital on Feb. 4.
Paul, who also works in health care, said Thomas went into self-isolation away from his wife and 18-month-old child.
By Monday — roughly a week into his quarantine — Thomas had chest pains and went to the emergency room, according to Paul.
"While he was waiting for the doctor to do the assessment, he had a sudden cardiac arrest and that's when the doctor came. He was found dead," Paul said.
Thomas was healthy and very active, he added.
"It's our duty to look after [others]," Paul said of their chosen field. "I wish all health-care workers had the vaccine already."
Earlier this week, Moe said the first phase of Saskatchewan's vaccination program, which is expected to stretch on into April, will vaccinate about 60 per cent of the province's health workers.
At Thursday's news conference, Dr. Tania Diener, the SHA's lead medical health officer for immunization, was asked how protected people like Thomas — who had only received his first COVID-19 vaccine dose — are from the disease.
"If you pick up any disease in the first two weeks after that first shot, that might mean you've been exposed before that first needle. So we shouldn't look at those numbers," she said.
"If you look at efficacy after around 14 days up to the second shot, both Pfizer and Moderna are in the low 90s. If you look efficacy after the second dose, for both of those it's between 94 per cent, 95 per cent."
The province also warned on Thursday that some people may not receive their second dose within the recommended 42 days due to shortages of the Moderna vaccine.
"This is ultimately some of the consequence of an erratic supply of vaccines and, in fairness, this isn't just to Canada," Moe said. "However, we do seem to be having our fair share of reductions of our [expected doses]. As soon as we have vaccines available, those individuals are going to receive them."
Taking him home
Paul launched a GoFundMe page for Thomas' family that has so far collected more than $90,000 in donations.
Thomas was originally from Ponkunnam, Kerala, India, and had been working to become licensed as a registered nurse in Canada, Paul said.
"We are planning to take his remains after the funeral to send back to India where his parents are," Paul said.
The SHA said it's reaching out to family to offer support and also ensuring coworkers are aware of mental health supports.
"Out of respect for their family and for patient confidentiality, we are not able to provide any additional details at this time," the spokesperson said.