Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, found himself on the defensive Thursday night during a meeting with fellow physicians.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) hosts virtual town halls on Thursdays for doctors working through the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a forum for doctors to trade stories and advice, as well as learn the latest epidemiological statistics on the virus's growing footprint in the province.
Videos of the town halls are then publicly posted the next day.
One of the participants on Thursday, Dr. Brent Thoma, asked why doctors should continue to place their trust in Shahab and other leaders, given that the province only moved on Thursday to mandate masks and announce a proof-of-vaccination program, despite doctors warning Shahab and Premier Scott Moe weeks earlier about the worsening COVID-19 situation in Saskatchewan.
"As we saw these numbers worsen … we didn't hear from you," Thoma said, referencing a letter medical health officers sent Shahab and the Saskatchewan government on Aug. 26 outlining more than a dozen further steps the province could take to battle the fourth wave.
The fourth wave took hold after Saskatchewan dropped all of its COVID-19 public health orders on July 11.
"We didn't see action," Thoma said of the letter, adding that recent infection numbers in the province are "a disaster."
"Why are we waiting until now [to do] even the most basic public health measures enacted throughout almost the rest of the country?"
WATCH | Sask. might need help from other provinces with COVID-19 surge
Shahab is a government appointee. He can make public health recommendations to Premier Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan government, but it's up to the government whether to adopt those suggestions.
Shahab responded by acknowledging the importance of consulting medical health officers.
"But decisions that are legislative, that have societal impact beyond the health system, are complex decisions and not mine alone," Shahab said.
"There's lots of things which are not in our individual hands as clinicians...." he said. "It's not just my role, but the role of government, the elected government, to think of all aspects. And ultimately, it will make the decision that it was elected to make."
In a news conference earlier on Thursday, Shahab and Moe were asked if they felt, in retrospect, that the province should not have dropped its COVID-19 rules on July 11.
Shahab said he and Moe still cautioned people at the time to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces.
He suggested officials had perhaps been too hopeful that some of the practices enforced during earlier waves of the pandemic, including masks, would rub off on people even if the government no longer required them.
"I think one mistake is that one hoped that behaviours that we had learned over 16 months would continue. But they got dropped very quickly. And now you're back to an order for mandatory mask use."
Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation have also contributed to Saskatchewan's "stagnated" vaccination rate in recent weeks, Shahab said.
Low vaccination rates in some parts of the province have happened despite the province and partners going "out of their way to address complacency and convenience," he said.