15 new cases of COVID-19 as outbreak declared in southwest Sask.

SHA executive director John Ash, medical officer of health Dr. Shaqib Shahab and Health Minister Jim Reiter hold a press conference on the province's response to COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. (Screenshot/Government of Saskatchewan)

Saskatchewan reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, with all but one of the new cases coming from an outbreak in the southwest part of the province near Maple Creek.

The remaining new case is in the far north region.

The province has declared an outbreak in two Hutterite communities. Two members of a rural household in the area originally tested positive last week. Contact tracing is underway.

The cases are being investigated for connection to interprovincial travel to Alberta.

Anyone with concerns is encouraged to get tested. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said it’s important to continue physically distancing in all parts of the province.

So far, none of the cases have resulted in hospitalization.

He said local public health officials have strong relationships with the communities and are working with local leaders to spread the message, test anyone with symptoms and conduct contact tracing.

Officials are also reaching out to other colonies that may have seen travel or other linkages due to social or work-related reasons, as well as with colonies on the other side of the Saskatchewan-Alberta border

“This is part of an ongoing investigation, and it’s important that public health continue to work with both communities to try to get ahead of the outbreak,” Shahab said.

“We’ve seen in many situations that the faster you move to do testing widely when there is an outbreak, to do quick case follow-up, the quicker you can get ahead of the outbreak and control it.”

Shahab said investigations such as this one tend to turn up more cases because even people with very mild symptoms are tested.

“The outbreak investigation results in more cases than you would find otherwise,” he said.

“If it’s up to individuals to seek testing, many people with mild symptoms don’t think about testing. You undercount actual cases.”

He said that’s why, across the province, even when case numbers remain low, it doesn’t mean there’s no COVID-19 transmission.

“You should continue to take precautions all the time. The role (of an investigation) is to identify anyone who may have been in contact with cases in the next two weeks and minimize further contacts to stop the generation of further cases. That’s how you get ahead of the curve and control the outbreak.”

Shahab defended the province’s decision to single out the pair of Hutterite colonies. While some reports indicated community leadership was upset they had been identified, Shahab said it’s the health authority’s practice to identify any communities where an outbreak occurs. Previously, Lloydminster, La Loche, Clearwater Dene First Nation and Prince Albert have all been identified when previous outbreaks have been declared. Shahab said the community wasn’t identified when the first two tests came back positive, only when the outbreak had been declared.

The rise in confirmed cases brings Saskatchewan’s total to 708. Of those, 59 are considered active. Three more people have recovered, bringing that total to 636.

Two people remain hospitalized in Saskatoon, with one in intensive care.