Province announces booster shots, new vaccine mandates in Monday COVID update

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe (Herald file photo)

Premier says province won’t make vaccines mandatory, but will support businesses and organizations that do

Premier Scott Moe said it’s going to get a lot less comfortable for unvaccinated Saskatchewan residents as the province announced new rules for public health workers, and new plans for vaccination booster shots starting Sept. 7.

The Ministry of Health and Saskatchewan Health Authority will be working with public health reps to create a mandatory vaccine policy. Employees who do not get vaccinated will have to undergo mandatory testing.

Moe said around 80 per cent of Saskatchewan’s new COVID cases are in residents who aren’t vaccinated. The premier remained adamant that Saskatchewan would not create a mandatory vaccine policy, but said they supported businesses, sports teams or event organizers who chose to do so.

“It’s going to be more uncomfortable to not be vaccinated in society,” Moe told reporters during a media update on Monday. “As we look ahead, we’re ensuring that we are going to work collaboratively with organizations that want to institute this proof of vaccination and proof of negative test policy.”

The University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan, and Sask Polytechnic have all made vaccines mandatory for returning students and staff. The Saskatchewan Roughriders followed in their footsteps on Friday, instituting the same rules for fans starting on their Sept. 17 home game against Toronto.

Moe said he supports the Riders’ decision, but said it’s an unrealistic burden to force on smaller businesses or sports teams, many of which are struggling to recover following the pandemic lockdowns.

“I just don’t think there is room or staff available, in the retail sector for instance, for them to move forward, (and) have people who are checking for proof of vaccination prior to entry into various restaurants and retail locations,” Moe said. “There are a number of policies that are often put forward. We have to work through them as a government to make sure that those policies are actually operable on the ground.”

Moe said he wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of businesses, sports teams and event organizers would implement their own vaccine rules when they had the capacity to do so. He again urged Saskatchewan residents who haven’t been vaccinated to get their first and second dose as soon as possible.

He added that the province expects to the see vaccine age elementary requirements lowered to include elementary school children before the end of the calendar year.

NDP leader Ryan Meili welcomed the news that seniors and other vulnerable residents would receive a booster shot, but said the government announcement will do nothing to contain the fourth wave.

“A plan that does not emphasize testing, tracing and enforceable self-isolation for positive COVID-19 cases, vaccine mandates for all large public events, a plan for full vaccination of school and healthcare staff, and appropriate indoor mask mandates, falls far short of what is needed to keep Saskatchewan people safe,” Meili said in a statement.

Saskatchewan has 30 COVID patients in ICUs across the province, and 116 hospitalizations overall. SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said those aren’t the highest numbers they’ve seen since the start of the outbreak, but they have been creeping up over the past couple of weeks.

The SHA aims to maintain a capacity of 79 beds across the province.

“The vast majority of the ICU patients right now are COVID-related,” Livingstone said. “Saskatoon, Regina, and certainly Prince Albert—where we’re seeing case jumps—are not at capacity, but they’re getting to the point, particularly in Saskatoon and Regina, where we might have to activate more additional beds.”

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan chief medical health officer, said he’s concerned about the fourth wave and low vaccination rate. He said vaccination often increases after a serious hospitalization or COVID death occurs in a community, with some areas going from 20-30 per cent vaccinated to 80 per cent in a few weeks.

“Why should we have to wait for an unfortunate event which results in hospitalization and death?” he said. “This is the time (to get vaccinated). Fall is coming. We’ll be spending more time in doors. We’ll have a more transmissible delta variant, and really, it’s to all of our benefit to step forward to get vaccinated.”

Residents require two vaccine doses before they are fully effective, but some vulnerable residents will get a third starting on Sept. 7.

Shahab said there are some concerns the vaccine’s effectiveness may decrease over time. Long-term care residents, personal care home residents, and immunocompromised patients are the primary targets, but transplant patients, chemotherapy patients, recipients of the anti-CD20 agent, and anyone receiving stable active treatment for malignant hematologic disorders will also get a booster.

All eligible patients will receive a letter in the mail from either their physician or from the Ministry of Health Drug Plan branch. Additional eligibility groups will be announced soon.

“We know that while two doses are protecting all of us in Saskatchewan, and as the premier said, that’s very evident from the cases (and) hospitalizations we are seeing, but we also know that there are a few people who may not have generated a robust immune response to the vaccine so far and they require additional doses, particularly as our transmission rates increase,” Shahab said.

Shahab said the boosters will not affect the province’s ability to reach unvaccinated residents through pharmacies and pop-up clinics around the province.

Like Moe, Shahab emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

“I cannot stress this enough: vaccines are so effective,” he said. “It is really important that all of us complete our second doses, and for those who have not even got the first dose, it’s not too late to start. The next four to six weeks is the right time to get vaccinated.”