Moe calls for accelerated vaccine delivery, defends COVID-19 approach

Province reveals UK variant detected, but no contacts infected; says case numbers gradually decreasing

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

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe repeated calls for accelerated vaccine access for Canada and defended his government’s current public health measures.

Moe’s government is coming under increasing pressure from critics to step up its response to the COVID-19 pandemic as the province trails behind other Canadian jurisdictions on a per-capita basis.

As of Monday, Saskatchewan had the second highest rate of active COVID-19 cases, at 201 per 100,000 population, behind only Manitoba. 

In terms of the rate of cases over the last seven days, though, Saskatchewan is in last place. It also trails in deaths over the past seven days, cases over the past 14 days and is second last in terms of deaths over the past 14 days. All of those measures are rates, meaning they’re adjusted for population variance across Canada.

Other provinces have enacted stricter measures, such as closing non-essential businesses and services and limiting what products can be sold in stores.

Saskatchewan, though, has stayed the course. Moe said Tuesday that his government’s plan is working.

“The measures we have in place are not insignificant … (and) do prove to lower the number of infections,” he said.

“Would we like to see them drop quicker? I think that at times, we would. Follow the public advice that is here. It does work. It has been proven to work. They work better when each and eery one of us commits to following that advice”

Moe said Saskatchewan’s approach has meant that residents have had to make some sacrifices, but at the same time, work has been done to balance the negative impacts of the restrictions with support for the way of life “we all know and love and want to get back to.”

Moe said a couple of tough months are still ahead as the vaccination efforts ramp up.

Vaccines have been one of Moe’s favourite topics over the past few weeks. He has criticized Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals for failing to secure a reliable supply to vaccines quickly enough. The two vaccines currently approved for use in Canada, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, have both seen delivery disrupted as the companies have worked to ramp up and improve supply chains. 

“There continues to be very encouraging news about the effectiveness of vaccinations from countries that are further along than we are,” Moe said Tuesday.

“Vaccines are working. We just need to get a few more people vaccinated — quite a few more here in Saskatchewan because that’s the path out of this pandemic. Our health care workers have been doing a good job … getting needles into the arms of as many people as possible.”

Moe said the next shipment of about 5,500 Pfizer vaccine doses should arrive in the next day or two, with 6,000 from Moderna coming later this week, a slight decline in the 6,500 expected from the latter of the two approved vaccine producers.

Moe said that the total amount of doses delivered makes up only about 12 per cent of the province’s phase 1 vaccination plan, which targets health care workers, seniors over the age of 80 living in the community and both staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

That amounts to around 190,000 people. The vaccines require two doses, so phase one requires 380,000 shots

“We need more vaccines and we need them more quickly,” Moe said.

The premier remains in contact with his provincial and federal counterparts and Tuesday morning spoke to the CEO of Pfizer. He said the federal government expects to ramp up vaccine deliveries in the second quarter.

“We would like to see that happen sooner if possible,” he said, “Into Q1. Our province and our health care team is ready.”

The federal government said Tuesday that it anticipates to have enough vaccines available by the end of September for every Canadian who wants one. 

Moe also announced that the province’s sequencing plan for widescale vaccinations will be released next week. That phase of vaccinations will begin once the most vulnerable have been completed.

“There will be many options for where you can go to get your shot when it is your turn,” Moe said.

“That is our path out of this pandemic. That is our path together out of this pandemic.”

Sask detects first two cases of UK COVID variant

The province also announced Tuesday that it had detected the first two cases of a COVID-19 variant first uncovered in the United Kingdom. Called variant B.1.1.7, it is believed to be more contagious than the predominant variant of COVID-19. The province said the two cases were detected in a traveler and a close contact, and that they have self-isolated and no further transmission occurred. The traveler had returned from the UK before travel restrictions were tightened.

The two cases are the first of the UK variant to reach Saskatchewan. Canadian provinces have reported 135 cases of the UK variant and at least 30 of the B. 1.351 variant first found in South Africa.

None of the South African variant have been found in Saskatchewan to date.

“Any virus can have many variations, but if the variant is seen to behave differently, that’s labelled a variant of concern,” Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Tuesday.

“As we move forward, it’s likely we will see more variants and some will become variants of concern.”

Shahab said the Roy Romanow Laboratory in Regina is actively monitoring  for variants, but that results have to be confirmed by whole genome sequencing at the national lab in Winnipeg.

While there is no current evidence of those more transmissible variants spreading within Saskatchewan, Shahab said that all the actions taken to control the spread of the main variant of COVID-19 Canada has been battling since last February, such as wearing masks, social distancing and staying home when sick, will also prevent the spread of the new variants.

He urged against international travel and interprovincial travel, both of which could import the new strains into Saskatchewan. If you do have to travel between provinces, he said, avoid public places and follow all of the guidelines.

Shahab also walked reporters through the most recent data about the state of the outbreak in Saskatchewan.

While testing numbers have declined slightly, Shahab said enough tests are being done and the current level has to be maintained at the least. He encouraged anyone with any symptoms to book a test or to visit a drive-thru testing site.

“There are not a lot of other respiratory viruses going around. If you have respiratory symptoms, do get testing,” he said.

The daily test positivity rate, sitting at 9.1 per cent, is higher than the province would like, he added. That positivity rate is much higher in the north and far north, where it is in triple digits. 

In North central it is sitting at 11.2 per cent.

He also said the daily new case rate per 100,000, currently sitting at 18.6, also needs to come down. The far north and north regions also lead in that measure. 

The North Central zone has a daily new case rate of 20.6 per 100,000 population, and a daily active case rate of 232.2 per 100,000. 

The province is testing an average of 203 people per 100,000 each day.

Shahab also outlined the daily rolling average of test positivity, daily new cases and average daily new cases, all indicators that have been decreasing day-by-day since last Monday.

This, he said, is a sign that public health measures currently in place are working. 

“Our case numbers are trending down but very slowly,” he said.

“If we want to continue with our current ability to do the things we are able to do, we all have to follow these measures. We can’t guarantee there will be no transmission.”

Shahab said clusters of cases can usually be tracked back to people getting too close at work, attending gatherings that shouldn’t happen or through secondary household transmission.

Household transmission is the leading cause of COVID-19 spread in Saskatchewan, he said, followed by congregate living settings such as long-term care or group homes. 

Like Moe, he defended the measures that are in place. He said the province is reviewing where transmission is happening, and looking for specific areas it can reduce, but can’t find one specific area.

“The ability to allow some things to continue, but to make sure all of us follow the guidelines to a ‘t’ is going to be essential for the time being,” he said.

8 more COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday

Eight more residents diagnosed with COVID-19 have died. 

One death was reported in each of the 40-49 and 50-59 age groups, while two deaths were reported in each of the 60-69, 70-79 and 80-plus age groups.

One resident from the North Central zone was among the pair of deaths in the 60-69 age range.

The province reported 223 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, along with 266 recoveries and 106 new vaccinations.

The province has 2,320 active cases and 21,602 recoveries. 

The seven-day average of daily new cases is 227, or 18.5 per 100,000 population. 

On Monday, 1,974 tests were processed.

Due to efficiencies in drawing extra doses from vials of vaccine received, 109 per cent of the vaccine doses received have been administered. 

So far, 30,692 people have received their first doses of the vaccine, while 4,883 have received a second dose. 

The south west, south central and central west zones are the only ones yet to distribute any vaccines.

Positive COVID case connected to Wesmor

Three classrooms are self-isolating at Wesmor Public High School after public health connected positive COVID-19 cases with the school.

One of the classrooms will return to in-person learning on Monday while the others will isolate until next Thursday.

There is no evidence that the case or cases were acquired or transmitted at the school. In-person learning will  continue for all other classes.

The Saskatchewan Rivers School division announced the positive case late Monday evening.