All public health restrictions will end on July 11, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 is going away.
That was the message from Premier Scott Moe and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, who spoke to reporters at what will likely be the province’s last COVID-19 press conference of the year.
While mandatory mask orders and limits on indoor public gatherings will end, Moe said a few residents and businesses may continue with some restrictions. The province will not prevent businesses from requiring customers to socially distance or wear masks, nor will they prevent residents from wearing masks in public.
However, Moe said the province’s fight against the virus needed to evolve, and masks and lockdowns were no longer the best way to stop the spread.
“After 485 days of the government telling you how to live your life, all of those restrictions will end,” Moe said during his opening remarks. “As you can see, there’s no mission accomplished banner that is hanging behind me, and that’s because, although the restrictions are coming to an end, COVID is not.”
“This fight against COVID does need to continue, but it will shift into a new and somewhat different phase,” he added. “Instead of trying to control the COVID infection rates through government imposed restrictions and government rules, we can now control COVID through vaccines, and by everyone possible in this province doing their part (and) taking the time out to go out and get vaccinated.”
As of Wednesday, roughly 71 per cent of all eligible Saskatchewan residents have received their first vaccine dose, and roughly 50 per cent are fully vaccinated. However, the province trails almost all of its western counterparts in both areas.
British Columbia (78.2 per cent), Alberta (73.6 per cent), Manitoba (75.1 per cent) and Yukon (84 per cent) all have a higher percentage of eligible residents with their first dose. Only British Columbia (38 per cent) trails Saskatchewan when it comes to eligible residents who are fully vaccinated.
Yukon leads the West with 76 per cent of eligible residents fully vaccinated. Those numbers are from Monday, July 5. As of Wednesday, Alberta is at 50.7 per cent, and Manitoba is at 51.5 per cent.
Moe and Shahab both spent significant chunks of Wednesday’s press conference urging those who haven’t been vaccinated to book an appointment.
“If you are not vaccinated, the only protection you have is low case numbers due to people who are fully vaccinated,” Shahab said. “People who are fully vaccinated are providing some protection to you, but COVID is sneaky, and finds its way out. The fact that we have 10 or 20 pop-up cases due to no known exposure means it will still (spread) at a low level, and continue to transmit for months or years.
Shahab said residents who do not get vaccinated are actually in a worse place this year than they were in 2020 due to the spread of new strains of COVID-19. These variants spread even quicker than the original virus, he explained, and the symptoms are even more severe.
“You are not in a good place if you are unvaccinated. That risk will remain and continue to be there,” Shahab said. “If there is a surge in late summer or fall, your risk will be much higher than it was last year.”
Of the more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in June, 80.8 per cent involved patients who had not received their first and second dose. This includes residents who had received their first dose, but had not waited the mandatory 21 days before they could get their second, as well as patients who had not received their first dose at all.
Roughly 17.5 per cent of June cases involved residents who had received their first dose, and were past the 21-day waiting period, but had not yet received their second. Only 36 cases, or roughly 1.8 per cent of all cases, involved patients who were vaccinated with a second dose.
Symptoms in cases where the patient had received a second dose were also not as severe, Shahab explained.
“The vaccines seem to be working well, for the most part, across all age groups,” he said.
Moe said those numbers showed there was absolutely no reason for residents to not get vaccinated.
“The evidence that vaccines are working really couldn’t be much more stark than that,” he said.
Shahab emphasized that it was safe to reopen, but said residents still need to be cautious. COVID-19 testing sites will remain open, also hours and locations may vary, and some mandatory mask restrictions will remain in place at acute care facilities.
Rapid testing will also continue for visitors at SHA facilities, and while masks and physical distancing won’t be mandatory, they are strongly encouraged when visiting long-term and personal care homes.
Anyone experiencing COVID-like symptoms should stay home, and health practices like hand-washing and surface cleaning need to continue. Shahab added that the days of toughing it out and coming to work when feeling under the weather should probably end as well.
“This is as safe as it’s going to get for the foreseeable future,” he explained. “This is why we have to live with COVID. It’s not really practical to remain in lockdown forever, but again … that still doesn’t apply to people who choose to remain unvaccinated. Their risk remains the same.”
There are still plenty of questions surrounding what a reopened Saskatchewan will look like. The biggest involves the immunity provided by the COVID-19 vaccine. Shahab said long-term care residents who received their vaccination in January or February may need a booster shot before the end of the year. However, he also emphasized scientists were still determining who needs a booster dose, and how long they needed to wait before getting one.
“That will be a part of living with COVID,” he explained. “Just like we have the flu vaccine—a new formulation every year—we will likely have a COVID vaccine, and a new formulation which may be used as a booster. It’s still to be determined.”
Shahab said there’s good evidence showing two doses will be enough to protect younger residents for more than a year, but that’s not necessarily the case for older residents.
There will also likely be more coughs and colds this winter. Shahab and Moe both urged residents to get their flu shots this fall too.
Wednesday’s press conference ended with a handshake between Moe and Shahab, shortly after the premier thanked the chief medical health officer for all his hard work on behalf of Saskatchewan residents.