Vaccines reducing severe COVID-19 outcomes, but province not considering incentives despite lagging first dose numbers

Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks to media in Regina in this file photo from March 2020. File photo.

Data released by the provincial government Tuesday shows that COVID-19 vaccines are working, but Saskatchewan isn’t considering incentives to encourage people to receive their shots.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab walked reporters through data suggesting that the number of so-called breakthrough cases in the province remains low, and illustrating that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases detected in May were in residents who hadn’t received a vaccine dose yet, or who had but hadn’t yet developed immunity as three weeks hadn’t passed since their inoculation.

According to the data presented by the province Tuesday, 91.9 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the month of May were in people who weren’t vaccinated. Of the handful of cases that had received at least one dose of the vaccine, 38 per cent had other underlying medical conditions.

Only 36 vaccinated residents ended up in the hospital, Shahab said, of which 28 had other medical conditions. Of the hospitalized residents, 86 per cent were over the age of 60. Only six people who were vaccinated ended up in the ICU, versus 40 unvaccinated residents. All of those six vaccinated residents who ended up in the ICU with COVID-19 had other medical conditions or were older than the age of 70. Shahab said he expects numbers to further decrease as residents begin to receive their second doses of the vaccine.

“it is now extremely clear that vaccines are reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our province reducing hospitalizations and saving lives,” Health Minister Paul Merriman said.

He said the daily average of new cases is now the lowest it’s been in seven months. The reduction in new cases has also meant that all three Saskatoon hospitals have been allowed to move to level 1 family presence restrictions, down from level 2. Level 1 means that each patient can designate two support people, of which one can be present at a time.

“This is one more step in ettin back to normal that we’re able to take because so many Saskatchewan people are getting their shot,” Merriman said.

“Even a single dose provides good protection,” Dr. Shahab said.

“Together with public health measure, vaccinations are now pushing our numbers to lower and lower levels that are allowing us, in a systematic way, to reopen.”

He speculated that complacency could be a factor in slowing vaccination rates, suggesting that residents who live in areas where COVID-19 hasn’t been as prominent may be slower to get their vaccine. He said data indicates that 80 to 90 per cent of people are intending to get vaccinated, even as less than 70 per cent of the population over the age of 12 has a first dose of the vaccine in their arm, despite being eligible.

Vaccine uptake has been the highest in urban settings, such as Saskatoon and Regina. It’s been lagging in rural areas a little bit. Officials are working with newcomer communities, universities and schools to improve vaccination rates.

Merriman suggested nicer weather and the business of younger residents are reasons the rates of new vaccinations have tapered off.

“We’re getting down to the lower numbers. We did anticipate that it would slow down when we got to the younger age groups, because they might not see the impact on themselves,” he said.

“What they’re failing to see are the impacts on their families and communities. They’re failing to see that this is important not just for themselves but also for the greater community.”

Provincial data shows that since May 31, the number of second doses administered each day has surpassed first doses. While the percentage of the population eligible for both doses does continue to increase, there are more people unvaccinated with one dose than there are eligible for a second dose of vaccine.

Some, like the provincial NDP, have called for a lottery-like system to reward people for receiving their first vaccine and to incentivize people who haven’t received one yet to go out and get it. The Saskatchewan Party said it isn’t considering incentives at this point, and boasted that its vaccination uptake is among the best in Canada.

“We haven’t seen any (incentive) that has jumped up the rates significantly,” Merriman said.

“We are going to achieve those targets The vaccine uptake has slowed a little bit as of late, but there are many factors in that.”

Despite the province’s claims, data from the federal government shows that Saskatchewan is no longer leading the nation in its vaccine uptake.

While the province only includes eligible populations among its vaccine reporting, the federal government reports vaccine percentage as a proportion of total population. Saskatchewan’s mark of 54.49 per cent of its population receiving at least one dose of vaccine as of May 29 was seventh among provinces, trailing BC, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Saskatchewan was the first to begin second doses and to announce its reopening plans, but it has struggled in recent weeks to continue administering first doses of vaccines.

And despite Merriman’s claims that younger people may just not understand the immediacy of the COVID-19 risk, many have said access to vaccine doses has become more difficult as of late. The province is no longer using its online booking system for first doses, directing residents to drive-thrus and pharmacies.

Pharmacies book individually, and people with kids or busy jobs may not be able to sit in line at a drive-thru, despite provincial legislation requiring employers to give their employees three hours of paid leave to access a vaccination.

Many have been calling around to various pharmacies only to be turned away due to already-booked appointments. The frustration means people looking for a dose of vaccine are being forced to wait longer to find an appointment that suits their schedule.

As of Tuesday, every age group 50 and up had at least 70 er cent uptake of first doses, but among residents aged 12-29, less than half the population had received their first dose of vaccine. In all, 65 per cent of residents over the age of 12 have received their first dose. When that mark reaches 70 per cent, the province will enter the third stage of its reopening plan and remove most remaining health restrictions, such as masking requirements and gathering size limits.