Province bans gatherings of more than 250 people as it ramps up COVID-19 response

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)

The provincial government has suspended all public gatherings of over 250 people and is ramping up its response to coronavirus after a second case was found in the province.

Saskatchewan announced on Friday that a second presumptive case had been identified in a Saskatoon resident who travelled to Oregon. The resident was in their 60s and is safely self-isolating at home.

Premier Scott Moe, Health Minister Jim Reiter and Chief medical health officer Dr. Shaqib Shahab addressed the media Friday afternoon.

“I know the emergence of this pandemic is causing great uncertainty,” Moe said.

‘Families are worried about the impact COVID-19 could have on their community and their family members. I can assure you that the entire government of Saskatchewan also understands this.”

Moe said his government is coordinating a province-wide effort and coordinating with the federal government. He said all necessary resources will be made available to support efforts that are already underway.

He also announced a number of new measures ordered by Shahab to help slow the spread of the virus. Those measures include banning gatherings of over 250 people in any one room, effective Monday, as well as banning events with over 50 people with speakers who have attended international events.

Retail locations and faith-based organizations are exempt, but they should have crowd size monitoring and support safe social distancing, Moe said.

In addition, the province has banned international travel for government employees and restricted out-of-province travel for government employees on government business. Any out-of-province travel for government employees on government business is subject to approval by the premier’s deputy minister.

Any government employees travelling or planning to travel internationally for personal reasons will be required to self-isolate for 14 days once they return to Canada, and all government employees experiencing symptoms of respiratory or flu-like illness will be required to stay home.

The chief medical officer strongly recommended that all employees also adopt those same measures.

Additionally, Moe, announced, Wednesday’s provincial budget will go forward as planned but without invited guests. All public tours and general public access at the provincial legislature has been suspended.

 The other concern, surrounding 811 capacity, has also been addressed, with both capacity and staff doubled as of Friday morning, with more capacity to be added in the future.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Ministry of Health are working to enhance testing, including setting up dedicated testing sites.

Testing facilities have been opened in Regina and Saskatoon. A third centre is set to be opened in Prince Albert on Monday.

The testing centres are for referrals only and not for walk-in testing.

Patients who are referred fit criteria of potential exposure, exhibiting mild symptoms and suspect they have COVID-19. They can obtain a referral by phoning their family physician, HealthLine 811 or their local Public Health Communicable Disease Control office. 

If you are not exhibiting symptoms, you do not need to be tested. Detailed information on COVID-19 symptoms and care management can be found at saskatchewan.ca/coronavirus

“Most important is the responsibility we all have to ensure we do what we can to reduce the risk to ourselves, reduce the risk to our families and reduce the risk to our communities,” Moe said.

“Practice social distancing. Wash your hands and wash your hands often. Self-isolate if you feel any symptoms of illness.”

Dr. Shahab told reporters that more than 300 tests have been completed in the province.

He said the province is “ramping up” testing where people have travelled anywhere in the world or attended large events, even within Canada.

While all sectors of the government have been making their own community plans, he said that at this point there are no plans for school closures.

That will be considered, he said, if the need arises.

“There is no evidence of community transmission,” Shahab said. “Children can still gather in people’s houses (if schools are closed), he said. “We want to minimize social disruption, we want to promote as much social distancing as possible.”

Keeping kids in school, he said, is the best way to do that.

Shahab said residents should only consider getting tested if they are exhibiting symptoms. A test on someone without symptoms would be “pointless”, he said.

If you do need to be tested, you should call ahead so you can minimize exposure to others. Testing right now is being done away from other patients to prevent the spread of the virus. 

In addition to the testing of people with symptoms who have travelled or attended large events, Shahab said the province has implemented automatic screening for COVID-19 in respiratory outbreaks in the health and long term care sectors that aren’t attributed to the flu. Any severe respiratory hospital admissions will also be screened for coronavirus.

While testing is being done, Shahab stressed the importance of self-isolation.

“The mainstay of management has to be self-isolating if you’re ill at home,” he said.

“We have to make sure that’s done in a safe manner, whether that’s urban, rural or remote. Irrespective of travel, that is the key thing that is really important.”

The emphasis right now is on slowing the spread and ensuring the health care system doesn’t become overwhelmed.

‘We want to avoid, as much as we can, the rapid ramp-up that has been seen in some jurisdictions,” Shahab said.

“We’re trying to reduce the risk,” Moe added. “We can’t eliminate the risk.”

He advised that when people do go shopping they should try to keep their distance from other shoppers or considering wiping their cart handles down. He also stressed the importance of personal distancing, such as avoiding handshakes or hugs and maintaining a distance of 2 metres between people.

“We’re trying to educate people and keep them informed in terms of the things they can do to reduce risk in their own personal life.”

Testing, 811 improvements rolling out

Both Moe and Reiter said the province is working actively to improve the availability of services to Saskatchewan residents.

Moe said Friday that Saskatchewan’s share of the $1-billion announced earlier this week amounts to $15.6 million. That’s on a per-capita basis of the $500 million set aside for provinces and territories.

That money will be used to help expand testing across the province, Moe said.

The goal is to ensure no one has to travel far to access COVID-19 testing if it’s required.

Reiter added that the province is actively working to improve 811 access after the service found itself overwhelmed with four times the usual call volume Thursday.

“We’ve effectively more than doubled the capacity right now,” h said.

Sasktel was called in to help, staffing has been doubled and the service went from 32 to 69 phone lines. It will continue to grow as demand rises, he added.

Moe also addressed his reasoning for keeping the legislature sitting. The House of Commons announced Friday that it would suspend its current sitting until April 20.

“We feel the government has work to do,” he said.

‘We should continue to do that work.”

He added that the federal government is continuing to consider what kind of additional support structures should be put in place for employees and employers, including self-employed residents who don’t typically have access to health benefits.

The SHA is expected to update the public on its readiness Saturday afternoon.

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