The province’s latest reopening plan will be guided by vaccine uptake.
The province unveiled the new plan Tuesday afternoon, which sets targets for certain restrictions to be lifted at certain points when set proportions of the provincial population have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Phase 1, set to be complete by mid-May, will take place three weeks after 70 per cent of residents aged 40 or older have received their first dose and vaccine eligibility is opened to all residents aged 18 or older. That step will see restaurants and bars open province-wide with a maximum six people per table, Places of worship limited to 30 per cent capacity or 150 people whichever is less, group fitness classes resume, the limit of indoor and household gatherings raised to ten people and public indoor gatherings capped at 30. Outdoor public gatherings will e limited to 150.
Step two, which is expected in about mid-June, will take effect three weeks after 70 per cent of everyone aged 30 and over has received a first dose, and at least three weeks after step one.
It will lift capacity limits on retain and personal care services, table capacities at restaurants and bars ad allow event facilities, casinos, bingo halls, theatres, libraries and recreational facilities to open with a maximum capacity of 150 people. Private indoor gatherings will be capped at 150 people and remaining restrictions on youth and adult sports will be lifted.
Step three, which will take effect three weeks after 70 per cent of the entire province over the age of 18 has had a first dose and at least three weeks since the beginning of step two, will see most remaining restrictions lifted. The province has said guidance on gathering sizes and indoor masking is still under development.
“Saskatchewan’s reopening roadmap is a three-step plan to gradually lift the current public health orders as Saskatchewan reaches significant vaccination levels,” Premier Scott Moe said Tuesday.
“Some will say that we are moving too slow on this reopening roadmap, while others will say we are moving too fast. To those who would like us to go faster, I would say that we do need to be cautious. While our case numbers and hospitalizations have been stable or declining slightly over the course of the last few weeks, we do need to wait just a few more weeks so that more people are able to access their vaccine before we start lifting current restrictions.”
While the metrics are set at 70 per cent of each population, Moe is hoping and believing that Saskatchewan will exceed that mark. He said the plan is based on what has worked in other jurisdictions around the world that have begun to loosen public health restrictions.
“It’s worked in other jurisdictions and we’re confident it will work here. We want to provide the metrics for Saskatchewan people,” Moe said.
“We known and we trust that Saskatchewan people will strive to meet these metrics.”
Moe said the plan is being unveiled now because he and his Saskatchewan Party colleagues are hearing from residents who have been following public health orders and getting vaccinated what the road ahead might look like.
“It incentivizes Saskatchewan people to go out and get vaccinated,” Moe said. “It incentivizes them to follow the public health orders between now and when we can achieve the phases.”
Critics, though, were quick to point out that vaccines are not the only metric to guide a pandemic response. They also pointed out that the plan only requires 70 per cent of the population to receive a first dose of vaccine before reopening. The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines all require two doses to reach desired levels of immunity.
“These are good goals and reasonable steps, but we can’t ignore what’s happening with the COVID numbers at the same time,” said NDP health critic Vicki Mowat while speaking to the Herald Tuesday afternoon.
“We have called for additional thresholds to be included — things like hospitalization, our case numbers, our test positivity rate. These are also benchmarks in how we are doing fighting the virus. Those pieces should be included. It’s indicative of this government’s approach that vaccines aren’t the whole story, but that’s the only story they’re willing to tell.”
Mowat said that 100 Saskatchewan residents have died from COVID-19 since restrictions were rolled back in March.
“That can’t be undone,” she said.
“There is still a lot of COVID-19 in our province and we see the dangers of the variants and we have to make sure that the pandemic is being managed in addition to this hopeful future reopening.”
Public Health Agency of Canada recommendations released last month suggest at least 75 per cent of all adults should have their first dose and 20 per cent should be fully vaccinated before restrictions can be relaxed without risking another wave of infections in the fall.
Moe said those recommendations are based on modelling, while Saskatchewan’s recommendations are based on other countries’ lived experiences.
‘We base our decisions based on what has actually worked in other countries instead of on modelling. When you are achieving metrics like we have put forward, it is driving down the most severe outcomes due to COVID.”
Moe said Saskatchewan’s plan is akin to slowly opening a dimmer switch, and not throwing open the barn doors all at once one day. He also said Saskatchewan’s vaccination rates will be higher than the UK’s where when it began to relax restrictions.
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said those other metrics — such as testing rates, hospitalizations and ICUs will be carefully watched by the province, as they have been throughout the pandemic. He also stressed that getting the first dose into everyone’s arms is only the first step.
Data will be used to track possible localized case spikes, who’s getting sick as well as who might be hesitant to get a vaccine.
The first dose is the key to a good summer, he said, but the second dose is the key to a successful fall.
‘We will continue to monitor all COVID trends,” Shahab said.
“Public health measures are going to be so critical now and as required and adjusted in the future. As our vaccination rates were just starting to pick up, the bulk of the suppression of the variants was through public health measures. It was being careful, considerate and thoughtful about what we were doing, keeping our contacts low, wearing a mask in public places and workplaces, through those critical public actions you were able to reduce the surge in Regina and we’ve managed to stabilize and see a downward trend throughout Saskatchewan,” he said.
Like Moe, he emphasized the importance of getting a second dose when it’s your turn. While the federal government has allowed provinces to give the two doses up to 16 weeks apart. Saskatchewan said Tuesday that rising shipments of vaccines means that everyone will be vaccinated “well within” that timeframe and no one will have to worry about waiting longer for their second needle.
Moe is encouraged by what he’s seen so far, with Saskatchewan leading the nation in vaccine uptake and high percentages of all age groups lining up to get vaccinated. That’s especially true, he said, of the province’s oldest residents, Shahab said.
“Our seniors and our elders have set the target for the rest of us.”