Unvaccinated Saskatchewan adults should pay for their own COVID-19 tests if they want to go to Saskatchewan Roughrider games or other events, say some health experts.
"We don't have any duty to accommodate these people. The onus is on them to bear the costs," said Saskatoon health policy analyst Dr. Dennis Kendel.
At the moment, anyone can get a COVID-19 test for any reason, and it's 100 per cent publicly funded. Demand for tests is expected to soar as Saskatchewan's per capita case numbers and hospitalizations lead the country, most of which is driven by unvaccinated residents.
But demand could also soar due to thousands of unvaccinated sports and music fans, university students and others. Venues requiring proof of vaccination are allowing patrons to take a COVID-19 test instead of getting vaccinated. For example, if Saskatchewan Roughriders fans are representative of the general population, more than 9,000 could seek a test before game time instead of showing proof of vaccination.
"It's a cop-out (to allow testing instead of vaccination)," Kendel said.
"Who's going to pay for that? Is that on the public dime? If you elect to not get vaccinated and you want to go to a Riders game, maybe you should pay for the test."
Officials from both the Roughriders and the Saskatchewan Health Authority say they're in talks on the details of their vaccination and testing plan.
Pleading with the government to reconsider
A rapid-testing kit costs the health system about $7. They are not currently available to individuals and were intended for businesses wanting to contain outbreaks or school pilot projects, not for the unvaccinated to gain admission to entertainment events.
As of now, the only option is to take up a spot getting a more reliable PCR test at a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) testing centre, where health workers are stretched beyond capacity.
SHA testing chief Carrie Dornstauder said they were conducting roughly 1,000 tests per day in July, but in recent days that has shot up to 4,500.
That PCR testing kit is worth $16, but Dornstauder said the real costs to the system — and taxpayers — are far greater.
"There's the cost of the person delivering the test. There's the cost of the IT infrastructure to communicate results. There's personal protective equipment. There are the many people involved based on the results of that test. There's a much bigger cost to testing than the device itself," Dornstauder said.
Dornnstauder said the removal of the provincial restrictions and state of emergency since July 11 has changed the SHA's ability to manage workers. The ability to staff COVID-19 units is less flexible now, and even those who remain are exhausted.
"It is most certainly challenging for us, and sustaining our service will continue to be a challenge into the fall," she said.
"How do we triage those that are sick versus those who want to enter an event?"
To this point, individual groups in Saskatchewan have been left to make their own rules for proof of vaccination.
Governments in B.C., Manitoba, Quebec, PEI and now Ontario recently announced plans for province-wide proof of vaccination systems. When they did, the number of people booking vaccination appointments increased dramatically. This week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe rejected the idea.
Kendel, as well as the Saskatchewan Medical Association and the government's own medical health officers, are pleading with Moe to reconsider.
Kendel said Moe is resisting because he fears angering his political base.
"Holy hell, you've got this so backwards," Kendel said. "You're just trying to pander to the people who haven't stepped up, just grand standing for your audience."
Kendel and others say a province-wide plan would save lives and prevent a confusing, ineffective patchwork of regulations across the province. Kendel added that a clear proof of vaccine policy is the only way to increase vaccination rates.
"The 'please get vaccinated' message doesn't work. It's obvious," he said
"If you want to be out and about and enjoying life, I think we need to have a vaccine card that determines whether you're admissible or not. And if you're not, that's a pretty strong incentive to go and get vaccinated."
Child psychiatrist Dr. Tamara Hinz agreed.
"Anyone who believes in public good has already gotten (vaccinated)," Hinz said. "We've clearly plateaued in our uptake. What else needs to be done?"
It's unclear whether any venue or employer will accept a privately purchased COVID test—which is not sanctioned by the Saskatchewan Health Authority—as an alternative to vaccination.