More masks, shorter bar hours Monday as province attempts to slow spread of COVID-19

Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks to media during a COVID-19 update in Regina on Sunday, March 15, 2020. -- Screen capture.

Masks will be mandatory in all communities with a population of 5,000 or more and more restrictions have been imposed on licensed establishments and gyms as Saskatchewan tries to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and avoid economy-wide lockdowns some have said are necessary to ensure the health care system doesn’t become overwhelmed.

The Ministry of Health and SHA held a joint press conference in Regina Friday with health minister Paul Merriman, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, SHA CEO Scott Livingstone and SHA Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Susan Shaw. The officials both introduced the new measures and implored Saskatchewan residents to take the recent COVID-19 spikes seriously.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat the situation — it’s not great and getting worse,” Merriman said.

“This threat is very real, but I believe we could get it under control if we do the right thing. Saskatchewan, you’ve done this before and I know that you can do it again.”

Friday’s public health order comes into effect Monday and means that all Saskatchewan residents in communities of 5,000 or more will have to wear a mask in public, indoor locations. The order also applies to neighbouring communities or municipalities situated around the largest urban centres of Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert. Since they often head to the urban centres to work or access services, they will be included even if their populations are less than 5,000 residents.

Additionally, all Saskatchewan restaurants and licensed establishments, such as bars, taverns and nightclubs will be required to stop serving alcohol by  10 p.m. Alcohol consumption must end by 11. There will be no exemptions for private events or outdoor serving spaces.

Hookah and waterpipe services, though, have been disallowed.

 Fitness centres will be allowed to continue operating, but group activities are only allowed if participants can be three metres apart throughout the activity, and all group activities are limited to eight people, max. Individual aerobic activities, such as running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, are also still allowed if the equipment is properly distanced.

“Our case numbers are still quite a bit lower than our neighbouring provinces, but our case numbers, our hospitalization numbers, the number of patients in ICU — all of these have been heading in the wrong direction,” Merriman said.

“It is our sincere hope that a reduction in hours in alcohol service will prevent us from needing to proceed from more significant closures in this sector.”

Merriman said if the province takes COVID-19 seriously as it did in the spring, the spread of the virus can be contained.

“We need to make sure we get back to basics, back to the good practices that allowed us to be successful at controlling the spread of COVID-19 through the spring and summer,” he said.

“No one wants to get back to another lockdown. No one wants to close business and put people out of work, so we need to slow down the spread of this virus. a slowdown is how we will avoid another lockdown.”

Dr. Shahab said the recent COVID-19 numbers have been alarming. At ten cases per 100,000 population, or about 120 cases per day on average, the province needs to look at measures to slow transmission down. That, Shahab said, is where Saskatchewan is right now.

The test positive rate is also up, he said, averaging at around six per cent. The goal is to keep it “well under” ten per cent, and trending down over time.

Already, hospitals in major centres are struggling to accommodate acute care and COVID-19 patients, and they haven’t hit the worst of it yet. Current hospitalizations are from positive cases identified about two to three weeks ago. That means the hospitalizations from this past week, where almost every day saw triple-digit increases in the total case count, will put even more pressure on the health care system.

“Even though the bulk of our cases are in young adults, who for the most part have mild illness, there is an overflow into people who are older, people who have underlying risk factors, and that is then reflected in hospitalizations and deaths we are announcing,” Shahab said.

He added that modelling has shown that when people limit their trips out into the public, where a mask when indoors, follow physical distancing, wash their hands and stay home when sick, the curve bends easily, without big lockdowns or economic slowdowns.

“We can only avoid (lockdowns) if we all do these things, not if some of us do it,” Shahab said.

Despite criticism that other jurisdictions facing a larger crisis than Saskatchewan tried similar measures as the province announced Friday without success, Merriman said he believes the new restrictions can work if people comply.

“The key to this is compliance,” he said.

“It’s a proportionate response,” Shahab added.

“But if we see cases that some other jurisdictions have seen, our only option is a significant slowdown or lockdown. We do have to give this a good, solid try before we move into more restrictive methods.”

To naysayers who allege the modelling overestimated the spread and risk of the virus, Shahab pointed to some of the “intense outbreaks” seen in small communities. He said those outbreaks have matched or exceeded modelling predictions.

“If you (extrapolate) those numbers to the province, they meet or exceed the worst-case scenario for modelling. We should not underestimate that COVID can behave as ruthlessly in big, wide Saskatchewan as it has behaved in some places in Europe, the US and Canada.”

Those same long-range projections say that if the province does nothing, the health system won’t be able to manage. That would mean residents with a heart attack, stroke, cancer or other acute care need would have nowhere to go.

Facing an impending rise in hospitalizations, the health care system is getting ready.

“As important as it is to tighten our belts and follow public health orders … we know we’re going to start seeing increase pressure, and that’s why we’re activating our teams so we can respond to that,” Livingstone said.

“We’re not stopping services. But we know we’re going to have to deploy resources to properly care for those cases that are going to come to us.”

Those resources come at a human cost, he said. It comes at a cost of hospitals that are full and health teams that are maxed out.

It’s a worst-case scenario, and one the SHA hopes it doesn’t have to resort to.

“We are prepared. We will be prepared but our goal should be to never get to that point,” Dr. Shaw said.

“That’s not on the health care system, but on the actions of our public. We’ve done it before and I’m confident we can do it again. Keep yourself safe, keep the people you love safe and keep the health care system safe.”

Merriman agreed.

“We’re at the tipping point,” he said.

“We want to make sure less people come to the hospital. to do that, we have to make sure more people are adhering to the guidelines. I have full faith with the people of Saskatchewan to comply with this. we have to go back to basics.”