'The way through this is vaccines:' Saskatchewan premier won't tighten COVID rules

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REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says vaccines are the answer to a rise of COVID-19 variant cases in Moose Jaw, not imposing tougher public-health rules heading into the Easter weekend.

Moe said bringing in tightened restrictions should be a last resort and he believes residents will do the right thing and follow public-health advice to stem the spread of the virus.

"The way through this is vaccines. The way through this is not to increase public-health measures," Moe told a briefing Tuesday.

"We're asking people to be extra diligent over the course of the next number of weeks as we find our way through the dying weeks — what we hope are the dying weeks — of this pandemic."

The Ministry of Health warned that variants were on the rise south of Regina, including in and around Moose Jaw, which has a population of 35,000.

The south-central region that includes Moose Jaw had 111 active cases Tuesday, while the southeast zone that covers Weyburn and Estevan had 134 active infections — nearly double the number from a week ago.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the rise in cases is concerning and asked residents, particularly those in Moose Jaw, to stick to existing public-health rules and stay home.

Moe said Moose Jaw was recently put on alert that rules could be tightened if things don't improve, as was done in the Regina area last week over concerns about the high caseload.

Households in the capital and surrounding communities were banned from having guests, restaurants were restricted to takeout and delivery and indoor event venues were closed.

Homes outside the Regina region are still allowed to have up to 10 people inside at once.

The premier said that Moose Jaw was not seeing the same surge of COVID-19 as the Regina area.

The capital region continues to drive Saskatchewan's COVID-19 spread with an average of 201 new daily cases.

Of the 164 new infections reported in the province Tuesday, 91 were in and around Regina. Officials believe most of the region's new infections are from mutations and are mainly found in people younger than 50.

"Restrictions are not the first tool," said Moe.

"I don't believe they're the first tool for any government across this nation, nor should they be. People do have a personal responsibility to look at their own personal situation and to make their decision accordingly."

He said Saskatchewan was to receive about 180,000 vaccine doses over the next two weeks, much of which is to be sent to communities, including Moose Jaw and Weyburn, to be used in drive-thru clinics.

Saskatchewan is currently booking vaccinations for people aged 62 and older. That limit drops to 60 starting Wednesday.

People deemed clinically vulnerable are also eligible for the shot, as are priority health-care workers.

The Opposition NDP said Moe's Saskatchewan Party government is failing to respond to the variant spread in Moose Jaw.

"You only need to look down the road to Regina to see the cost of inaction. Regina hospital admissions and ICU beds are overwhelmed," NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said in a statement.

"Schools in Moose Jaw have moved to remote learning, but the government is keeping bars and restaurants open. It doesn't make any more sense in Moose Jaw than it did in Regina."

The Regina area had most of the province's 160 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday -- including 14 out of the 22 intensive care patients.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority has said variant spread is causing younger people in the Regina area to come into hospital with more severe illness.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press