How Saskatchewan set a record for COVID-19 deaths in 2022

The COVID-19 Omicron variant helped to fuel the record number of deaths from the virus in 2022, according to multiple experts.  (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The COVID-19 Omicron variant helped to fuel the record number of deaths from the virus in 2022, according to multiple experts. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Nearly a year ago, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced the end of COVID-19 restrictions in the province.

It marked a change in approach, as Saskatchewan stopped trying to contain the virus behind the global pandemic and moved to treat it the same way as any other communicable disease.

But the arrival of the Omicron variant changed the equation.

While it is considered mild in terms of symptoms compared to other strains, Omicron is more virulent, more able to evade immunity provided by vaccinations and, as a result, was able to spread quickly and infect more people, said Dr. Cory Neudorf, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

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From there it was just simple math as the virus ran through the province's population.

"The number of cases that we had in this province was so much higher than what we saw in the year before that even at a lower proportion, it has led to more hospitalizations, ICU stays and deaths," said Neudorf, who is also an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

At least 845 people with COVID-19 died in 2022 in Saskatchewan, an increase of 43 from the year before.

That number may increase as the province's data is updated and refined.

While the virulence of the Omicron variant is mostly what contributed to the high death toll in 2022, experts say the lifting of health measures at the end of February did the province no favours.

"I don't think [keeping health measures] would have prevented them, but it may certainly have reduced transmission to the point that we wouldn't be seeing overall as many deaths and hospitalizations," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan.

Lifting health measures

The decision to lift health measures was against the advice of many experts in the province.

"As you'll see from looking at previous interviews, most of us — as far as experts in this area — felt that was premature," said Neudorf.

The presence of COVID-19 persisted at a high level before slowly declining in the spring.

The province only reached "low" levels in July, due to limited vaccine uptake and immunity to the virus beginning to falter, according to Neudorf.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths stayed at a fairly high level until the summer, he said.

The health system did not recover until well into July. Then as the province's respiratory season began, the Omicron variant arrived in the province and caused hospitalizations and deaths to increase.

Lack of communication

Experts that spoke with CBC for this story stressed that there remains no silver bullet against the pandemic. It requires a combination of policies.

One thing that could have helped would have been better communication, Neudorf said.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer and one of the most public faces of the COVID-19 pandemic in Saskatchewan, was conspicuously absent for much of 2022.

In a recent interview with Radio-Canada, Shahab said he spent a lot of time encouraging vaccination.

"I am available when required, but it's primarily to promote vaccine uptake," he said.

Neudorf said the province's approach left much to be desired.

"Whether it was done well or not is not the question. The response from the public to date and where we're at shows that whatever was done obviously didn't work well enough," he told CBC.

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Neudorf added that he believes the province should have stayed away from a focus on mandates and instead concentrated messaging on the risk to the community.

"We should be just looking at this like a weather forecast … looking at should I be traveling on the road because it's icy right now." he said. "What's our warning around level of risk of viruses in the community? Then adopting appropriate precautions for that time. And when that storm blows over? You can relax the measures again."

With COVID-19 likely here for the foreseeable future, the experts and Shahab all stressed that it remains vitally important to get vaccinated and get the covalent booster when eligible.

"The problem of COVID hasn't gone away," Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote in an email.