Northern community leaders and Saskatchewan doctors are calling on the government to do more to protect northerners and extend the new mandatory mask public health order to rural and small communities.
On Friday the province announced that masks would be mandatory in all indoor spaces in municipalities with populations higher than 5,000.
The province announced a record 308 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday, 26 of which are in the far north west zone. Meanwhile, the far northeast region had 16 new cases.
The far north west zone includes Meadow Lake, Beauval, Ile-a-la-Crosse and La Loche. The far north east zone includes La Ronge, Air Ronge and Creighton.
"It's definitely concerning. I think everyone was surprised," said Dr. Anne Huang, a former Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer.
"The spread that's already happened … the horse is already out of the barn. They could initiate the next superspreader event. And we won't know until they show up in our stats two or three weeks from now."
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Saturday's case numbers are a reminder that the spread of virus is higher now than it has ever been before.
"We all need to redouble our efforts to protect ourselves and others," Shahab said in a statement.
"Wear a mask, limit your number of personal contacts, limit your number of visitors from outside your household, don't leave home if you are feeling sick, and make sure you're always physically distancing and washing your hands often."
Huang told CBC on Oct. 26 that the province needed to make masks mandatory province-wide right after the election. That did not happen.
"If we had done that, I'm quite certain we wouldn't be seeing the rise in cases that we're seeing today."
Huang says that the province's new restrictions were a reactionary choice.
"What they announced [Friday] will not help us get this under control. We might see a bit of a dampening of the number and it might not rise as fast. But we are not going to get the numbers back to even the 60s and 80s. It's absolutely not adequate."
"Mandatory masking for all indoor public spaces is absolutely vital. That's that's non-negotiable."
Huang says the far north is at particular risk because it has primary health care and emergency care, but no intensive care unit. If needed, patients must be sent down south for intensive care.
"And that's really critical because COVID-19 patients can deteriorate very quickly or suddenly because of blood clots in the lung or in the brain."
Spread in the north
Bruce Fiddler is mayor of Creighton and the chair of New North, an organization that represents and advocates on behalf of all municipalities in Northern Saskatchewan.
Fiddler says the mandatory mask order should be in effect for all municipalities, regardless of the size.
In small rural communities, people are living closer together and interacting a lot more frequently with each other than in urban communities, says Fiddler.
"In the north there's a large number of people living in one house. And so there is a lot of personal interaction throughout the community. So it's something that needs to be addressed for sure."
Meanwhile, Fiddler says that the First Nations he is in communication with regularly have very strict rules in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
"We could take lessons from them for sure," he said.
"A lot of them have lockdowns in place and have checkpoints in place set up on the outskirts of the community to keep track of who's leaving, going in and out of the communities. And they're very restrictive. They are looking after their communities very, very well."
Even as a resident of the far north east zone, Fiddler says the new numbers from the far north west are worrying.
"The north west side went through this earlier in the spring and they worked their way out of it. They were very stringent on their restrictions and they followed it well. And so I know they are very capable of doing it again," Fiddler said.
"But I have very serious concerns about it because it does spread through the north and we don't have all the essential health services in every community that's needed if there are outbreaks throughout the north."
Call for leadership
Georgina Jolibois, mayor of La Loche, says she is very concerned about the climbing cases in the north and a lack of a blanket mandatory masking policy.
"The premier left out the majority of the rural municipalities and northern municipalities where the population is under 5,000. Like La Loche, La Ronge," said Jolibois.
Jolibois says the province needs to understand that many people in the north have to go to Prince Albert, North Battleford or Saskatoon for certain medical appointments. Northerners are interacting with other communities through travel.
"I don't understand why a certain population was left out. The premier and Dr. Shahab really need to really get serious on COVID-19."
In a letter to Sask. Minister of Health Paul Merriman, La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak, Air Ronge Mayor Julie Baschuk and Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson asked for the mandatory mask policy to be implemented in the Tri-Community.
"The communities comprising the local Tri-Community of the Lac La Ronge area are disappointed in the exclusion of mandatory masking for communities with a population less than 5,000 from the public heath order to come into effect on Monday, Nov. 16," the letter said.
"It is our shared view that as COVID-19 does not discriminate against those it afflicts based on population density, neither should our government in its protection of the residents of Saskatchewan."
The Lac La Ronge Indian Band Reserve 156 and 156B have a population of 2,989. The town of La Ronge has a population of 2,688 and Air Ronge has a population of 1,106. The letter states that this combined number should be enough to have the Tri-Communities included in the mandatory mask public health order.