Following public health orders key as province enters autumn, premier says

Premier Scott Moe answers a question during a COVID-19 briefing in Regina on May 11. -- Screen capture from the Government of Saskatchewan Facebook page.

Saskatchewan is at a pivotal time in its fight against COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus.

That was the key takeaway from Thursday’s press conference, where Premier Scott Moe and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab reminded residents that what the next few months look like depends on how they behave now.

The return to school went fairly well, Shahab said, aside from a few isolated cases in Saskatoon.

To keep the spread of the virus out of schools, though, it has to be kept out of communities.

“If there are more cases in our community, it only stands to reason that some of those cases are going to be students, and some will be teachers,” Moe said.

“That’s how the virus will enter our schools. That’s what we have seen in a few schools in Saskatoon. If we keep our case numbers low in our communities, we greatly reduce the chances of this virus getting into our school system.”

Six schools in Saskatoon have had individual COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, Shahab confirmed that one or two of them were related to a bigger outbreak in the city. That outbreak stems from a private gathering of about 47 people. Over 100 people have been tied to the party’s attendees through contact tracing, and 21 cases have been connected to the event.

The hosts were fined $2,000 for violating the public health order, and the province expects to find more cases tied to the gathering in the coming days.

The students exposed to the virus, Shahab said, are safely isolating at home.

Both Moe and Shahab said the event is a cautionary tale of what happens when public health guidelines are ignored.

“This is a clear reminder of why we still have restrictions in place on the size of our group gatherings,” Moe said.

“Most of the large spreader events have been social settings often involving service of food or drinks. It takes just one infected person in those settings to pass that virus on to guests. They, they go home and pass that virus on to their family and other close contacts in the coming days. Before you know it, we have dozens of additional cases. Some may become very sick, some of whom may become hospitalized. None of us want this to happen.”

To avoid that, Moe said, people have to continue being careful and cautious, even when visiting families and friends.

“That’s how we’ll keep businesses and services and activities in this province open,” he said.

“It’s especially important now that we’ve seen our schools reopen.”          

Those guidelines — of limiting gatherings to 30 people and ensuring physical distancing, along with only meeting with your virtual household or extended virtual household — will be important as the weather grows colder and events are no longer possible outside.

“I think there has been some safety factor when people were gathering outdoors over the summer,” Shahab said.

“that safety margin no longer exists. We have to be very cautious going forward.”

Anyone holding a gathering should really consider why they’re having it and how to do it safely, Shahab said. Anyone invited should also think twice before attending, especially if they work with vulnerable populations. Residents, he said, should also “reset” their social bubble if need be.

 “Things like this can snowball very quickly and that’s what we need to avoid going forward,” he said.

Shahab added that most of the province’s so-called “superspreader” events have been tied to social situations.

Other activities, such as dining out, shopping or even seeing a movie, haven’t been tied to any outbreaks.

“Business owners are following the guidelines very well and customers are following the guidelines,” Shahab said.

“that has kept our cases low.”

He also praised younger residents, who have, for the most part, been following guidelines. Shahab said that means Saskatchewan hasn’t seen the same sorts of outbreaks that have hit other provinces.

He also warned that unlike previous enforcement, which mostly consisted of education rather than fines, any further violations won’t be taken so lightly.

“It’s been four months plus that we’ve been at the 30-=person gathering limit,” he said.

“People must understand this is the limit right now.”

With school back in session, the attention now turns to the months ahead, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Halloween. For Thanksgiving, it will be important to keep gathering sizes low and to plan ahead, Shahab said.

Additional guidelines could be developed if need be.

As for Halloween, what the annual tradition could look like this year is still up in the air. On Thursday, Alberta’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Halloween is “certainly not cancelled,” but that it may look different this year. She previously told reporters that if you want to enjoy Halloween, the vest thing everyone can do is to keep case counts low by following public health advice, including physical distancing.

Shahab didn’t say much when asked about Halloween Thursday, but he did say that it’s on his radar and that the province will be issuing some guidance before Oct. 31 rolls around.