‘The general public does not need to be concerned’ — First presumptive case of COVID-19 confirmed in Sask.

Individual recently travelled to Egypt, province says.

SHA executive director John Ash, medical officer of health Dr. Shaqib Shahab and Health Minister Jim Reiter hold a press conference on the province's response to COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. (Screenshot/Government of Saskatchewan)

Saskatchewan’s first presumptive case of COVID-19 was confirmed by the province Thursday.

According to a press release from the Ministry of Health, the first case is a Saskatoon resident who is in their 60s who recently travelled to Egypt.

After experiencing symptoms, the individual was tested on March 9 in Saskatoon and self-isolated at home. Public health officials are in regular contact with the individual.

“The province’s first case is linked to travel from a country where local transmission of COVID-19 has been reported,” Dr. Saqib Shahab said in a press release.

“This supports the expanded testing criteria of symptomatic travellers to better prepare Saskatchewan’s response to the COVID-19 event. All travellers need to monitor their symptoms for two weeks upon return home.”

Public health is investigating, contacting people connected with the individual. If you do not receive a call from public health, you are not at risk of transmission of COVID-19 from this individual.

“The individual is comfortable isolating at home like the majority of cases in Canada,” Shahab said during a Thursday morning media update.

The individual had very little contact with anyone else, aside from one other person in their house.

“The general public does not need to be concerned,” Shahab said. “We’ve been saying for some time that with several cases reported due to travel, we were expecting to see a case at some point. We remain vigilant to also detect cases that may not have travelled.”

Shahab said people can go about their daily business, but that anyone who travelled anywhere or attended large gatherings, even in Canada should closely monitor themselves.

If they develop a fever or cough, they should self-isolate, call the health line to see if their symptoms need further assessment and testing and get tested if that is the recommendations.

“We will continue to quickly isolate people who have COVID-19,” Shahab said. “Many individuals will remain comfortable at home. This is what we need to maintain as long as we can to prevent further community transmission in Saskatchewan.”

Transfer only happens in close contact, not through open air, Shahab said. He said people who travel from level-three risk countries — like China and Italy — should self-isolate when they return, but it’s not necessary for all travellers to self-isolate, unless they show symptoms.

The Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory reported the positive sample Thursday and forwarded it to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for confirmation.

“While the risk of acquiring COVID-19 in Saskatchewan continues to be low, increased testing will assist us in detecting cases as early as possible and delaying the spread of the illness as long as possible,” Shahab said. “But it is critical that residents take precautions to protect themselves against respiratory illness. Wash your hands frequently, practice good cough and sneeze hygiene and stay home if you are sick.”

“The Ministry of Health and the Saskatchewan Health Authority have dedicated planning teams in place,” Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter said. “Our government is committed to providing the resources our public health system requires to mitigate and respond to COVID-19.”

In a press conference held Wednesday, Shahab urged people to practice social distancing, including by avoiding handshakes and hugs. Social distancing will help to minimize the spread of illnesses, Shahab said, while self-isolating will help to minimize possible transmission.

That, Shahab said, is the best way to minimize the spread.

So far, 285 tests have been conducted in Saskatchewan. All but one have been negative. Twenty-two are still pending.

Social distancing should continue for the duration of the pandemic, Shahab advised, and events held in Saskatchewan throughout that time will be subject to risk assessments.

If the province does see sustained community transmission, it will then look at what measures to take, such as closing schools, cancelling events or restricting travel, Shahab said.

“We try to avoid disruption as much as we can. We need to make sure that people who have travelled get tested and screened. As long as we can maintain that, we need to allow routine things to continue as long as possible.”

Shahab said it’s impossible to predict how the disease will spread. That means it’s impossible to say when this year’s provincial election should or should not be held.

When it does come to election time, Shahab said people should avoid shaking hands or passing things by hand as much as possible. He also said sick people should avoid public gatherings, such as campaign rallies.

“Social distancing … we have to put that in place anyways and it has to be in place for many months,” he said. That includes visiting family, meeting with friends or attending places of worship, Shahab explained.

“We have to watch very carefully how this evolves. You can’t be cancelling everything for months at a time. It’s a tradeoff.”

On Thursday, Premier Scott Moe announced he would not be calling an early election in the spring.

“We will remain focused on providing a strong, stable government and addressing the health and economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moe wrote.

“I will not be calling a provincial election this spring.”

Locally, LUNAFEST was also cancelled in Prince Albert, the YWCA said they would cancel the event as large gatherings are not recommended. The short film festival was set to run in the city Thursday.

Shahab stressed that the disease, if not controlled properly, can cause a sudden spike in the use of the health care system. That’s what Canada, and Saskatchewan, are trying to avoid.

Instead, they’re trying to flatten the curve and slow down transmission.

“Individual measures are important to slow the spread of the virus,” he said, adding that most people who are diagnosed are able to recover at home.

Also Thursday, Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback announced that in-person services at his constituency offices would be temporarily suspended as information on the pandemic is frequently changing.

“All constituency business with my staff and I starting today will be conducted via telephone, email and videoconferencing,” Hoback said in a statement.

“My parliament hill and constituency offices will continue to offer constituency services during regular business hours. I will reassess these service provision changes in the immediate future. We are open for business.”

The mortality rate of the virus varies. Globally, it’s sitting at about three per cent. For people aged 80 and older, it’s at about 14 per cent. It’s very low in people under the age of 20 and less than one per cent in younger adults. It ranges from two to five per cent in middle-aged adults, Shahab said.

“It’s tough, it’s scary but take a deep breath, deal with it and once it goes away in two to three weeks, life comes back,” Shahab said.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is preparing by ensuring it has the appropriate personal protective equipment available and by ensuring staff are ready for the virus’s potential arrival.

Existing pandemic plans are in place, and now the focus is specifically on COVID-19.

Shahab stressed that other countries have shown that with proper precautions, transmissions to health professionals can be minimized or eliminated altogether.

He also said that self-isolating and contacting the SHA through health line is important, as testing is currently done through ways that minimize exposure to others.

Protect Yourself from Respiratory Illness:

•      Wash your hands frequently – for at least 20 seconds;

•      Do not touch surfaces and then your mouth, eyes or nose;

•      Use tissues when you cough or sneeze and dispose of them immediately, use your elbow if a tissue not available;

•      Practice social distancing by not shaking hands, hugging, etc.;

•      Stay home if you become ill and prevent the spread of the illness.

Travel Guidance:

All travellers should self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough or difficulty breathing) for 14 days after returning to Canada and avoid places where you cannot easily separate yourself from others if you become ill. If you have even mild symptoms, stay home and call HealthLine 811 for advice.

Contact HealthLine 811 within 24 hours of arriving in Canada for direction.

The federal government announced $1-billion in funding for Coronavirus response on Wednesday.

Local school divisions have said they are making plans for the virus’ arrival in Saskatchewan.

For more information from the province, visit https://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/health-care-administration-and-provider-resources/treatment-procedures-and-guidelines/emerging-public-health-issues/2019-novel-coronavirus

JUNO Awards cancelled

Thursday also saw the cancellation of the JUNO Awards, which were set to be held in Saskatoon this weekend.

“It is with an incredibly heavy heart that we collectively confirm the cancellation of the 49th Annual JUNO Awards and JUNO Week activities … due to concerns surrounding COVID-19,” an announcement issued Thursday read.

The decision was made with input, guidance and support of the province, the City of Saskatoon, Tourism Saskatoon, the SHA and the Ministry of Health.

“We are devastated to cancel this national celebration of music, but at this time of global uncertainty, the health, safety and well-being of all Canadians must stand at the forefront of any decisions that impact our communities,” the JUNOs said.

“We know this is the right decision based on the information we currently have and are continuing to receive. The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly and we urge everyone to follow the guidelines and protocols put forth by public health officials.”

CARAS will continue to look at options to find an alternative way to honour this year‘s award winners, the press release said.

Sports leagues suspending seasons

While the NBA was the first professional sports league to suspend its season, the National Lacrosse League followed suit Thursday morning.

The leagues are choosing to suspend play as the pandemic evolves.

The NHL also announced a season suspension Thursday.

The CHL also announced it would suspend its season. That includes the QMJHL, the WHL and OHL. Later, Hockey Canada announced all sanctioned events would be cancelled, including national championships, such as the Esso Cup.

The women’s world curling championships and several IIHF events have also been cancelled for 2020.

Prime Minister self-isolating

The Canadian Press reported Thursday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife are in self-isolation over COVID-19 concerns.

The Prime Minsiter’s Office said Sophie Gregoire Trudeau returned from a speaking engagement in the UK and began experiencing flu-like symptoms. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 Thursday evening.

While the prime minister himself is not exhibiting any symptoms, he is working from home out of an abundance of caution. He will address Canadians Friday.

He was scheduled to meet with premiers in Ottawa, but that meeting was instead held over the phone.

WHO declares pandemic

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” the organization said in a statement.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

WHO said there has never before been a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. The virus has been confirmed in 114 countries. There have been over 118,000 confirmed cases and 4,292 deaths.

Coronavirus is the family of the disease-causing the current pandemic. COVID-19 is the name given to the virus itself.

Canada has seen 93 cases and one death. A B.C. man who had other underlying health conditions died earlier this week.

Saskatoon fire crew, inmates at correctional centre enter quarantine

Four members of the Saskatoon Fire Department have entered a “precautionary quarantine” after a crew assisted a patient who was being tested for COVID-19.

According to a press release from the department, one fire engine from Fire Station No. 4 in the North Industrial neighbourhood responded to a medical call at 10:02 p.m. on Wednesday after it was reported that a person was experiencing shortness of breath.

The person was being tested for COVID-19.

“The quarantine of four staff members is a precautionary measure and will remain in effect until COVID-19 test results can be obtained and reviewed for the patient that was being treated,” the fire department said in a release.

The department says there will be no disruption to fire response in the city as a result of the quarantine.

The quarantine came down the same day as the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic, which is defined as a disease that is prevalent across an entire country or the world.

Inmates at Saskatoon Correctional Centre are also in a quarantine situation after an offender said he came into contact with someone in Alberta or B.C. with COVID-19, multiple media reports say. The province is waiting for test results in that case.

Specific measures being taken include restrictions on movement and placement of inmates in the facility, increased communication with offenders and staff about precautions, cleaning and disinfecting common areas and equipment, and regular and thorough handwashing with soap and water.

In Ontario, all elementary and high schools are to close two weeks following March Break because of the pandemic. that means no school from March 23 to April 6.

This story will be updated throughout the day as news develops.

— with files from Andrea Hill, Saskatoon StarPhoenix.