Saskatchewan's top doctor warns against gatherings to keep essential services going

·3 min read

REGINA — Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer is asking the public to stop gatherings except for work and school.

On Thursday, the province reported 913 new cases of COVID-19 — an all-time high — with a test positivity rate of 28 per cent.

Dr. Saqib Shahab cautioned that number will go up in the next two to four weeks and said it's time to stop all unnecessary indoor gatherings.

"This is critical to blunt the wave," said Shahab.

"Omicron is so ambiguous it will transmit anywhere whether you're sitting with two people outside your household or are having a gathering of 15 or 20 people."

He said people who must gather for events such as funerals and weddings should do so as safely as possible by wearing masks and taking rapid tests before attending.

Shahab said limiting get-togethers is necessary to prevent front-line workers from getting sick and to preserve essential services.

"It is a different phase, a phase where it's not just (maintaining) hospitals that will be the biggest challenge but also in all sectors — essential,non-essential, small and large workplaces. Keeping the work going is going to be a challenge," Shahab said.

He said if people don't follow the recommendation, the Saskatchewan Party government would have to consider public health measures, including a limit on gathering sizes.

There are no limits on gatherings now.

"From my side, nothing should be off the table, but the government has historically relied on the people of Saskatchewan to actually change behaviour and do the right thing," said Shabab.

"It'll be up to government to decide if that's sufficient or whether other measures through public health orders are required."

He also recommended that people limit interprovincial travel to prevent the highly transmissible Omicron variant from spreading to other communities prematurely.

"Omicron is less severe. (But) by no means is it something we should disregard," he said.

The Omicron variant is five to eight times more transmissible than the Delta variant, and reported case numbers are no longer an accurate measure of how many people are infected.

"Other factors will have to be considered the higher the transmission goes, which we will not be able to accurately measure because 30 to 40 per cent of actual cases will be reported through PCR testing," Shahab said.

He noted the health authority is closely monitoring hospitalizations instead.

Marlo Pritchard, who leads the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said case numbers will continue to rise but the province has not yet seen hospitalizations increase.

There are 100 people in hospital with COVID-19 with 12 of those patients in intensive care.

The province has started reporting on the number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 while in hospital for other illnesses or injuries.

Shahab said it's important to monitor how Omicron is affecting people so they know whether to add more acute care beds.

"Because of this high prevalence of Omicron, for every 100 hospitalizations, a significant percentage will be screened positive," he said, explaining the disease didn't necessarily put them in hospital.

"They will be monitored if Omicron is complicating their illness, which (could) totally be unrelated like a fractured leg or it may complicate it if someone had a heart attack or has lung disease."

For example, 39 of 100 COVID-19 hospitalizations were diagnosed when people were in hospital for other reasons.

Unlike previous strains of COVID-19, Shahab said it's still unclear if Omicron is causing hospitalizations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said 42 of 100 COVID-19 hospitalizations were diagnosed when people were in hospital for other reasons.

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