Nearly 300 physicians call on Moe to tighten COVID-19 restrictions

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

An open letter from 285 concerned Saskatchewan physicians addressed to the premier on Friday called on Scott Moe to tighten the current COVID-19 health orders and make changes to the vaccine rollout to deal with the current state of affairs in the province.

The letter expressed concern with the current situation. The letter noted that variants of concern are rising in the province and hospitals are becoming overwhelmed.

Dr. Lionel Lavoie,a retired physician from Melfort and former Canadian Medical Association president, was one of the signatories and explained that the timing was to remind people that the health aspect was as important to balance in pandemic response as the economic aspect.

“There has been touch and go between opening and closing and opening and closing and I think we are at a stage where the so-called third wave is with us and there are so many variants and that we now have to be very objective and say look the time has come where we need to be steadfast and close the barriers,” Lavoie said.

The physicians state that the current situation is seeing more cases in younger people, service workers and those from lower socio-economic groups.

“I mean we were talking about the old timers and now we are talking about the 20 to 40 age group and that’s becoming very disconcerting,” Lavoie said.

The letter points to recent comments by Moe that vaccinations are key to ending the pandemic but are viewed as the only solution. The doctors explained that vaccinations work, but the current roll out will not get the vaccines to those groups fast enough.

“Our current measures are not enough. Our system cannot cope with these more aggressive, more contagious and more lethal variants. Without further action, both our healthcare system and the economy will be further devastated,” the letter stated.

The physicians then echoed the call from the Canadian Medical Association and asked for a step up in public health measures across the province consistent with those in Regina and what has shown to be effective in other jurisdictions to decrease the number of cases and hospitalizations, immediate economic support for those whose livelihoods are affected and paid sick time for essential service workers.

They also called for an expansion of the provincial roll out strategy to follow National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) guidelines and include all healthcare workers, all essential service workers including teachers and childhood educators and other frontline personnel and those who are at higher risk due to socio-economic factors as well as the medical risk factors already included.

Lavoie pointed to the diversity of the people who signed on the letter.

“If you look on the names of the physicians a lot of them are senior physicians, some retired physicians , some young and upcoming physicians as well. It’s a whole retinue of people,” he said.

Among the signatories was his daughter Dr. Andrea Lavoie of Regina. Physicians from all across the province were represented with communities such as Prince Albert, Melfort, Swift Current, Assiniboia, Rosthern, Lloydminster, Saskatoon and Regina represented.

“I think it pretty well covers the whole province as well, it’s a multi-centred group, some from the city and the smaller communities and so on and so forth. And if you will look a lot of them have been involved with the Saskatchewan Medical Association and the College of Family Physicians of Canada,” Lavoie said.

He explained that it shows how important the current situation is to physicians and being steadfast was a key item. The rise in variants of concern (VOC) in Regina shows that the province should be ready if it occurs in other places.

“It has been open it up and then close it and then open and then close it. I think governments have been reluctant to close. You need to have a group to say ‘now is the time to close the doors or we are going to really be in trouble.’ We see what has been happening in Regina and sure as Dickens it will start happening in Saskatoon too if we don’t shut the barn door,” he said.

Doctor town hall data shows COVID-19 spread ‘uncontained’ in most of the province

The same day the doctors released their open letter, the SHA released data showing that the spread of COVID-19 was accelerating.

Each week physicians from across Saskatchewan meet virtually through town halls to discuss and ask questions about the COVID-19 situation and response.

Slides prepared for Friday’s town hall, and released publicly to SHA’s website, show several concerning statistics, including a rising test positivity rate and growing hospitalization numbers among younger residents.

In a slide titled “assessed risk of epidemic transmission by zone,” all but six of the province’s zones are marked as “high risk” or “high likelihood” that COVID transmission is not controlled. The entire north central, north west and far north east are all labelled as “high risk” that COVID spread is not controlled. Saskatoon, Regina and much of the southern part of the province, where more variants of concern have been detected, are labelled as “high likelihood” that COVID transmission is not controlled. The north east, far north west and far north central are marked as having COVID transmission controlled but seeing a risk of community transmission. Last week, most of the province had COVID transmission controlled.

The slides also show that Saskatchewan has the second-highest rate of variants of concern per 100,000 population, behind only Alberta, and highlight,s in red text that the province is seeing “exponential growth” of new cases and that “severity is increasing,” while testing rates fall in rural Saskatchewan.

The rising caseload, the slides say, “is not only” in the southern portion of the province.

“All have to behave like we are in Regina,” the slides say.

“Vaccination will not fix the problem in the short-term — not enough individuals protected.”

The slides only predict epidemic control if enhanced public health measures and individual precautions are implemented.

‘With the spread of VOC, current public health measures will be insufficient,” the data says, pointing to an exponential curve as the “current situation.”

The majority of spread, accounting for two out of every three cases, is coming at workplaces and communal living environments, the data notes.

It also confirms what had been widely reported but denied by elected officials — that drive-thru sites are not busy and missing their targets.

Cities that were on the very low end or consistently missing targets on most days of operation included North Battleford, Lloydminster, Regina, Saskatoon/Warman, Weyburn, Swift Current, and Kindersley. Prince Albert, Moose Jaw and Yorkton have been, on average, hitting their daily targets, though Prince Albert saw a drop off on April 6 and 7.

Vaccinations may not be enough, though. In Regina, where the variants have hit the hardest, the numbers of people aged 40-59 requiring hospitalization have steadily gone up, data shows, with about half of all ICU cases in that age range. As of Friday, only residents aged 55 and older could receive a vaccine in much of the province, with the lowest age cap set at 50.

“COVID-19 variants of concern are 36 to 70 per cent more transmissible,” the data said, as well as “60 per cent more severe.”

The slides also sought to quell concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine. The risk of blood clots from the vaccine is incredibly low — just four in one million, about the same as being hit by lightning.

The chances of getting a blood clot are higher from flying on an airplane or from being diagnosed with COVID-19 than they are from the vaccine.

  • With files from Peter Lozinski