Moe and Shahab defend move to loosen some restrictions as number of variant cases continues to rise

Premier Scott Moe and Dr. Saqib Shahab at a February 2021 press conference (Screen Capture/Government of Saskatchewan Facebook page)

Premier Scott Moe said Saskatchewan is in much better shape a year into the COVID-19 pandemic is than it was when the virus first hit.

Moe looked back on the 12 months of COVID so far and defended the relaxation of some restrictions during a press conference in Regina Tuesday.

Saskatchewan announced that groups of two to three households could once again get together so long as they maintain one consistent bubble of contacts. That hasn’t been the case since Dec. 14.

The province also announced that more people could attend in-person religious services, raising the cap to 30 per cent of a room’s capacity or 150 people, whichever’s lower.

“As we increase the pace of our vaccinations …. We will be actively looking at decreasing our restrictions,” Moe said.

“We still have to proceed with caution for a few more weeks until more of us have had a chance to get vaccinated.”

Moe said that nearly all long-term and personal care home residents have received the first dose, while 56 have received their second dose.

Outside of long-term care, just over one-third (37 per cent) of residents over the age of 80 have also received their first dose of vaccine.

Saskatchewan is set to see an increase in the number of Pfizer doses over the next few weeks, amounting to a 20 to 30 per cent increase. Moe said 124,000 doses will be delivered by the end of March — more than have been used in the province thus far.

Phase 1, which consists of residents over the age of 70, some front-line health care workers and all long-term and personal care home residents, should be complete by early April.

“This will be a very important milestone,” Moe said, adding that it should “significantly” reduce significant outcomes such as hospitalizations and death.

He estimated that residents in their 60s will be able to receive their first dose of vaccine by April 5, residents in their 50s by April 19, in their 40 by May 10, all residents in their 30s or older by the end of May, and all adults over the age of 18 by June 14. That’s with the current vaccine supply. The province has yet to receive word how much of the recently-approved Johnson and Johnson vaccine it will receive.

With the vaccine supply stabilizing, the province will also be launching its online and phone-based vaccine booking system late this week.

“The most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and protect those around us is to make this appointment,” Moe said.

“Weh it’s your turn, I urge you to make an appointment and get the shot. It’s the best thing you can do to ensure that our life in Saskatchewan can get back to normal and get back to normal quickly.”

Moe didn’t give any further target dates for loosening of restrictions, but he did say that some restrictions on businesses could be lifted in the coming weeks. He also said the province is working with sports and recreation organizations so they can plan for spring and summer seasons to run “as normally as possible, but also as safe as possible.”

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said there is “a growing optimist” with the accelerated vaccine delivery schedule.

Even as restrictions loosen, Shahab said residents should be as careful as possible and meet outside if possible, especially as the weather warms.

“Doing as much as possible outdoors … is going to remain key to keep our case numbers down,” he said.

“It’s been one year since the pandemic started We do see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just a few weeks until we all get vaccinated, but we do have to stay the course … until all of us are vaccinated.”

He added that the estimated date for population-level immunization, so long as residents continue to go for their vaccines, is late June/early July, as it takes three weeks for vaccines to develop immunity.

Shahab also outlined how the province is working to screen for variants of concern. On Tuesday, Saskatchewan announced it had detected 35 more cases through targeted screening in the Regina area.

To this point, only a couple dozen cases could be screened for variants at one time. However, the provincial laboratory has started screening all samples initially and those that screen positive will be sent for whole-genome sequencing. The hope is the province will be able to identify more cases of the variants of concern.

Shahab said that the best way to protect against the new variants is the same way residents have protected against the dominant strain — by socially distancing, wearing masks and staying home when sick.

“At the first sign of not feeling yourself, stay home, seek testing,” Shahab said. “That is going to be critical over the next few months.”

Responding to questions from reporters, Moe and Shahab battled criticism that with more variants popping up and with some time before a significant percentage of the population is vaccinated, public health measures shouldn’t be relaxed quite yet.

Shahab said his team will keep a close eye on the spread of variants of concern. Some provinces have about 30 per cent of their cases now spreading from variants, which have shown some indications of being more contagious. Other provinces are at ten per cent, while Saskatchewan, Shahab estimates, is at about five per cent.

“We can’t let our guard down over the next few months,” Shahab said.

‘Those little things, we have to pay more attention to than ever before.”

Some measures, such as the test positive rate, the hospitalizations, active cases and average new cases over seven days, are at their lowest levels since November.

Limiting social gatherings to only household members was a “significant measure,” Shahab said.

“In situations where there was some need to provide a more consistent social support (the relaxed guidelines) allow for that. For most of us, we should not change anything and should pay more attention because of variants of concern.”

If you’re doing well with just your household, or have vulnerable people in your household, Shahab said, don’t change what you’re doing until you get vaccinated. He also stressed the importance for those who do choose to bubble to only get together with one, consistent group of people and not belong to more than one bubble.

“It’s cautious relaxation that is considered OK at this point, but it comes with all these caveats that for those of us shielding ourselves well … this allows those instances where two or three households can support each other without being not compliant with the orders.”

In a press release, the province said residents should consider their risk before forming a bubble, and even then, encouraged residents concerned about their risk to continue gathering with their household alone.

He added that instances of super spreader events related to churches came when public health orders such as mask-wearing and distancing weren’t followed. If they are, he said, the new attendance rules should be sufficient.

Further, he added, when measures have been followed, churches have been able to have in-person services safely.

“Our trajectories are in a positive direction,” Moe said.

“We finally are just turning the corner in the province.”

A year into the pandemic, Moe said, Saskatchewan has learned a lot, and is on its way out of a once-in-a-lifetime global event.

“This has been a difficult year for everyone,” Moe said. “It has been especially difficult for families and friends of the 400 Saskatchewan residents we’ve lost to COVID. In one of the worst years imaginable, we’ve seen the best from our province.”

Moe said everyone has made sacrifices and thanked residents for all they have done and will continue to do.

“Everyone has changed their entire way of life to not only protect themselves, but those around them. We’re in a much better position than a year ago.”

That’s because, Moe said, not only do we know more about the virus than we did when it hit last March, we also have vaccines and a way out.

“(Last March) the only thing we knew for sure is that things were going to get worse in the weeks ahead. We know today, relative to one year ago, that in the days ahead, things are going to get better,” Moe said.

“One year ago, we were on our way into COVID and today, we are most certainly on our way out. The path out of cOVID depends on everyone getting vaccinated when it’s your turn.”

Moe likened vaccines to a tool the province didn’t have 12 months ago.

“This is a good day for Saskatchewan,” he said.

“The days ahead relative to a year ago look much brighter than they did 12 months ago.”

Union representing health care workers critical of loosened restrictions

A union representing health care workers is criticizing Tuesday’s move to loosen restrictions surrounding household gatherings and religious services.

SEIU-West put out a press release Tuesday afternoon calling the announcement “disrespectful” of health care workers. They said the move is premature and guided by politics, rather than science.

“It’s too soon to let our guard down like this,” says Barb Cape, President of SEIU-West. “The signs that the second wave is subsiding aren’t strong enough to justify relaxing restrictions. With the rise of the variants and lower testing numbers, we need to keep our public health restrictions in place for just a little longer to see if our efforts are really working.”

Cape pointed out that Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone have both expressed concern about the risk of a third wave of hospitalizations, especially among younger people and those not yet vaccinated. She said opening too soon will lead to a rise in cases and “another crisis” in the health care system.

“Ignoring the advice of two of your top advisors doesn’t seem like a sound way to go about protecting the people you were elected to serve,” adds Cape. “There are still a lot of unknowns about the variants and how quickly vaccines will be put into people’s arms.”

Cape said experts who watched jurisdictions in Europe reopen too soon, only to be hit by a third wave, say caution is the key for another eight to 12 weeks to protect the health care system.

“With the recent warmer weather, we’re already seeing a bit of a ‘spring fever’ effect and people are itching to push the envelope. We understand,” continues Cape. “But loosening Saskatchewan restrictions now will encourage folks to take risks… and in a couple of weeks, the heat will be back on again in our ICUs and acute care units. Let’s remember the restrictions in our province remain the most moderate in the country.”

The SEIU said that while numbers have fallen, they still are higher than in other provinces.

Saskatchewan’s rate of active COVID cases is the highest among the 13 provinces and territories.  The SEIU said Saskatchewan’s rate of hospitalizations remains the highest as well, though the Herald couldn’t verify that information on the federal government’s dashboard.