Updated May 1, 2020, 8:55 p.m.
Saskatchewan saw the second-highest single-day increase in its number of COVID-19 cases Friday as 26 were reported, with 19 coming from the far north region.
The increase is the largest since March 28, when 30 new cases were announced by the province.
The new cases brings the provincial total to 415. Of those, 112 are considered active. Two more have recovered, bringing the provincial total to 297. Ten people are in the hospital. Seven are receiving inpatient care (four in the north and three in Saskatoon) and three are in the ICU in Saskatoon.
Of the 415 cases, 138 are travellers, 163 have community contacts, 38 have no known exposures and 76 are under investigation by local public health.
In addition to the 19 cases from the far north, mostly attributed to an outbreak in the La Loche region, three more cases were detected in Lloydminster, which is located in the north region. A fourth case was also reported in the north region. Three additional cases were reported in Saskatoon.
Most of the new cases are related to the declared outbreaks in La Loche, Lloydminster and Prince Albert, the province said.
‘We are very concerned with the increase in cases,” said Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s Chief Medical Health Officer.
“The north, especially the La Loche area, is a concern. They remain highly vulnerable due to factors that include crowding and other factors as well.”
An order restricting all essential travel in and out of the far north, with the exception of La Ronge and Stony Rapids, remains in place. Checkpoints have been set up to stop travellers and inform them of the public health measures.
While the outbreak was initially traced to travel between Alberta and Saskatchewan, specifically travel from the Kearl Lake Oilsands site, it has since evolved into a case of a community outbreak.
“Right now the new cases … are people exposed in the community,” Shahab said.
“While the number of cases is very alarming,t his is part of very aggressive contact tracing and very aggressive testing. You find more cases than you would have otherwise. You’re trying to get ahead of the outbreak and contain it.”
Those measures include drive-thru testing and 19 teams that are going door-to-door to over 750 households to support case finding and household screening. That effort is underway in La Loche Clearwater River Dene Nation, Black Point and Garson Lake.
While a rapid GeneXpert testing machine has been brought to the community, the SHA is also working to arrange a daily flight to take presumptive positive tests to the provincial lab in Regina to confirm those test results.
The region has a lower threshold for testing. Any household that has an identified case will see everyone else in that household tested, given assistance and provided with accommodations to self-isolate if necessary.
Additional staff members are being brought in to help with the situation in the province’s northwest.
“Thank you to our staff who have already answered the call earlier this week for help in the area. We have had over 100 staff express interest in supporting the response,” said SHA CEO Scott Livingstone. “Together, we are demonstrating our power as a single health authority by pulling from health care workers across Saskatchewan to support the people in La Loche and area in their time of need.”
Staff members are interviewed, screened and assessed to make sure they meet requirements for the work. Some are set to arrive Friday with more coming over the weekend.
Staff re supporting increased testing, enhanced contact tracing, drive-thru testing, home monitoring and environmental and security services.
While much of the focus has been on La Loche, SHA executive director Scott Livingstone said a declaration of an outbreak in the community of Beauval, Sask. was imminent. An employee of a gas station and general store in Beauval previously tested positive. Anyone who had passed through that general store and gas station between April 12 and 27 should self-isolate until May 12 and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.
Beauval is located on Highway 155 to La Loche, about 40 km southeast of Ile-a-la-Crosse.
Reopen Saskatchewan still a go
Despite the case count increase and outbreaks in the north and far north parts of the province, the first phase of the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan, set to launch Monday, is still a go.
Phase one allows restricted medical services such as dentistry, optometry, physical therapy, optician services, podiatry, occupational therapy and chiropractic treatment to reopen. It also provides specific guidelines related to parks and campgrounds, boat launches, fishing and golf courses.
A public health order requiring people to limit gatherings to no more than ten people, practice physical distancing and stay at home if sick remains in place.
“Beyond (outbreaks), things are quite quiet,” Shahab said.
“For the rest of Saskatchewan, the Reopen Saskatchewan plan is on track. We continue to see great adherence to physical distancing. That will have to be observed … to make sure that the curve remains flat while looking carefully at outbreaks.”
Health Minister Jim Reiter also defended the decision to move ahead with the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan.
“I would point out that the outbreaks are very localized and none of the plan has been initiated yet,” he said.
Shahab said the plan isn’t a return to business as usual, but opening into a new normal. It means businesses will have to follow certain criteria surrounding cleaning and social distancing that have been used successfully at places like grocery stores that have stayed open throughout the pandemic.
“Things remain quite flat in most of Saskatchewan. In settings there are outbreaks and we keep monitoring and if there’s a cluster we identify a cluster,” he said.
“We have to be realistic about COVID-19. Our best estimate and modelling and evidence shows that this will continue unless there’s a vaccine or (therapy.) This will continue for the next several months.”
He said there might be a spike in cases again next fall or winter when cold and flu season returns.
“When things are quiet, the curve is flat, it’s not responsible to not reopen activity because that is essential as well. You can’t pause things indefinitely.”
When outbreaks arise, he said, it may mean a return to some localized restrictions to minimize the spread.
SHA apologizes for delayed reporting of Lloydminster outbreak
Livingstone addressed concerns raised this week about an outbreak in the Lloydminster hospital that was detected over the weekend but not reported until Wednesday.
Even Premier Scott Moe and Lloydminster Mayor Gerald Aalbers said they didn’t find out until later in the week with the rest of the public.
Livingstone said the SHA promises to do better.
“While we don’t believe there was any additional risk created to staff or the public because of this delay, we do recognize (notification) should have occurred sooner,” he said.
“It is certainly not the way the SHA wants to be known as a good communicator with our partners and the public. We are working with the ministry of health to correct the bad situation so it doesn’t happen again.”
Livingstone said the incident was a reminder that better processes have to be created to deal with the pandemic.
“We will learn from this virus, learn from some of the challenges … and correct them immediately,” he said.
One problem, Livingstone said, was that the process for providing a notification for an outbreak was built on a traditional model of flu in care homes.
“COVID is a completely different model and there’s a lot more interest,” he said.
The key to any outbreak is to limit public access to the affected facility. That’s been the case across the province for weeks, Livingstone explained.
Traditionally, in a flu outbreak, notifications aren’t escalated to a provincial level and public notices aren’t sent out, he said. While the declaration was made Monday, it wasn’t communicated quickly enough,
“This is not the way the SHA wants to work with our partners. I wouldn’t say we’ve broken our trust, we have unknowingly and not purposefully raised the anxiety in (Lloydminster) and we will do our very, very best to make sure it doesn’t’ happen in the future, and build those relationships locally.”