Residents of Saskatchewan will not face any additional restrictions over the Christmas holidays, despite the ongoing advancement of the extremely contagious Omicron COVID-19 variant in neighbouring provinces.
The province said on Dec. 21 that public health officials would be watching for signs of a surge.
“The uncertainty right now is that we surge up like other provinces are doing right now,” said Dr. Saqib Shahab, chief medical officer of health in a technical briefing for the media. “We have to watch very closely. Actions we take over the holiday will determine if and when we will see a surge.”
Omicron was first detected in mid-November and is now in virtually every country in the world. While there is limited evidence that it is more severe than the Delta variant, there also limited evidence that is less severe.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Shahab explained. “Omicron is definitely more transmissible but what impact will it have compared to Delta on our hospitalization in terms of hospitalizations?
“Some reports say it may be less severe but of course if its more transmissible and we see twice the number of cases that kind of balances out the benefit from it being less severe.”
Saskatchewan is still recovering from the impact of the Delta wave, with 98 people still receiving hospital care and 31 COVID-related ICU patients as of Dec. 21.
The province is also still working on returning health care staff to their home positions so that normal service can resume.
Some however, have already be diverted to giving out booster doses of vaccine as the SHA elected to open the option up to anyone aged 18 and older on Dec. 20.
Vaccine uptake has been strong.
“We are very encouraged that the booster program is seeing a high demand,” said Marlo Pritchard, president of the Sask. Public Safety Agency, which is overseeing the response to the pandemic. “To meet this demand the SHA is working through temporary re-deployment of staff from primary health care and public health areas to help deliver as many paediatric and booster doses as possible.”
As of Dec. 20, 32,337 appointments for third doses had been booked, a number which beats any previous day’s bookings by almost 5,000.
Pritchard re-iterated that there are enough booster doses for everyone to get one.
Vaccinations numbers have increased with 93 per cent of all residents five and older having one dose of vaccine and 75 per cent with two doses.
The vaccinations do not protect to the same degree against the much-mutated omicron variant but are still effective at preventing serious illness and death.
“Data continues to show that – over Sept to November – the risk of mild illness is six times higher but risk of hospitalization is 14 times higher if you’re unvaccinated and the risk of ICU admission is 33 times higher,” Shahab said.
Immunity to the virus starts to wane after six months, which is why the booster is highly recommended.
“Please make sure that you get that third dose to protect yourself, your friends and your family as the COVID vaccine booster doses are appearing to provide additional protection against severe illness and hospitalization from the Omicron variant,” Pritchard said.
As before, health authorities are hoping to contain the spread of the virus, now focused on Omicron although Delta is still present and to do enough that hospitals are not once again overwhelmed with patients.
“So far we have not seen widespread community transmission but over the next two or four weeks, we know that Omicron will become the predominant strain in Saskatchewan. We will see community transmission over the next weeks and the main goal is to prevent a high surge,” Shahab said.
We want to keep our numbers as low as possible while we continue to do all the things we can do and keep the slope as gradual as possible.”
Of the current Omicron cases in the province, one-third came from international travel, one-third from out-of-province travel and one-third are from household contact.
While the UK – which health officials are watching closely – has seen multiple deaths from Omicron over the last week or so, so far, no hospitalization in Saskatchewan are from the new variant but that will likely change.
There is a lag of several weeks between new infections and hospitalizations and then a further lag before ICU admission.
8.6 million rapid test kits dispersed
Officials are also pushing residents to make use of home antigen tests, available for free around the province.
As of Dec. 15, 8.6 million kits have been distributed across the province at 500 centres, such as local Chambers of Commerce and fire halls.
“Saskatchewan is leading the nation in this important preventative tool and I want to take a moment to thank every participating organization that is helping distribute these kits all across Saskatchewan,” Pritchard said. “This is a great example of Sask. pulling together to help each other.”
A positive rapid test is an indication the person who took it may have COVID and should book an appointment for a full PCR test and not proof positive that the person actually has the virus.
Shahab advised people to use it to test everyone attending gatherings as a way to reduce spread.
If cases surge during the holidays and hospitalizations start to increase, the province could be looking at the return of gathering restrictions.
“Will current public health interventions be sufficient or will we need to reduce our population mixing in addition to mask use and proof of vaccination to control a surge if it starts happening,” Shahab said.