Province bets on vaccines, rapid tests and apparent mildness of Omicron

Premier Scott Moe (left) and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab (right) shake hands. File photo.

The province of Saskatchewan is betting that the most recent COVID-19 variant is less deadly despite being massively more contagious as authorities continued to not add any gathering restrictions and announced that the isolation period for infected people would drop to five days from 10 for fully vaccinated people.

Omicron is significantly more contagious than even the Delta variant but, so far anyway, hospitalizations have not increased to the same extent.

“It is more resistant to vaccines at least in terms of how it transmits between people but being vaccinated most certainly does keep you from becoming seriously ill or sick,” said Premier Scott Moe in a media conference on Dec. 30 that was also streamed live on Facebook.

Questioned about why restrictions have not been tightened, Moe said that the provinces that have announced restrictions are still seeing massive growth in diagnosed COVID cases.

“Yes, the number of cases in Saskatchewan is rising and will continue to rise,” he stated, “but hospitalizations and ICU admissions continue to fall.”

As of Dec. 30, there are still no known cases of Omicron-infected hospitalizations in the province.

NDP leader Ryan Meili called on the province to increase public health measures instead, pointing at the consequences of a decision to ease restrictions and the resulting deaths in the Delta wave.

“What is frustrating is that it’s Scott Moe who has refused to learn any lessons, while Saskatchewan people continue to pay the price,” said Meili. “We know that it takes two weeks for new measures to take effect to lower hospitalizations. If we are waiting to see an increase in hospitalizations and ICU admissions before acting, we will be two weeks too late. Again. Why this government won’t take proactive measures is beyond comprehension.”

Meili said that in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta, hospitalizations have increased with the growth of Omicron in those provinces.

Despite the lack of provincial rules on gathering sizes, recommendations are still being made.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, provincial medical officer of health, said groups should be limited and people should refrain from visiting more than one household on New Year’s Eve.

“I would really request that we stick to close family and friends and maybe have up to 10 people over from a limited household,” he said.

Most of the Omicron cases in Saskatchewan and across Canada are in the 20 to 39 years age group, which is why the recommendation to limit New Year’s gathering sizes was made.

Provincial guidance on testing has also changed.

Effective immediately, people who are asymptomatic but receive a positive rapid test will no longer get a recommendation to follow up with a PCR test.

Instead, they should assume they have COVID and isolate for five days if vaccinated or for 48 hours following the end of symptoms. Unvaccinated people should isolate for 10 days or 48 hours after symptoms have ended, whichever is later.

Infected people are also being asked to notify their close contacts, defined as anyone you have been within two metres of for longer than 15 minutes.

Rapid antigen test are available throughout the province. In Prince Albert, the Chamber of Commerce and the Prince Albert Fire Dept are distributing the kits. Lake Country Co-op had some available at their food store and schools will be sending kits home with students starting in January.

“If you are going to be with a group of people, you should test yourself before you do so,” Moe said. “This is very much a large part of our offensive strategy as we look ahead through the next number of weeks and months.”

Today, the province has 12.6 million rapid tests available and four million more are expected in January.

Saskatchewan is in the process of changing how the pandemic severity is assessed.

“We are changing the metric we look at as a key indicator away from the daily case rates to the hospitalizations and our ICU admissions,” Moe said.

The Sask. Health Authority is also expected to start reporting the number of hospitalizations that are due to COVID, along with numbers from patients who are in the hospital for other reasons but also test positive.

A study in South Africa, where omicron was first identified, has shown that 63 per cent of their hospitalizations were incidental omicron cases and not the cause of the hospitalization.

“COVID is going to be around and going to be in our communities for some time, if we want to avoid going back to restrictions and lockdowns and limits on individual freedoms that we all enjoy…there are things that we can do to ensure that can happen. Got get your first dose if you have not and your second dose if you have not,” said Moe.

The definition of fully vaccinated is anyone who is two weeks past their second dose of an mRNA vaccine (Moderna, Pfizer) or the single dose of Janssen vaccine.

Booster shots have been approved for all adults 18 and older.

“Go out and get your booster shot,” said Moe. “A booster shot may not prevent you from getting COVID, but it should prevent you from getting seriously ill.”

Boosters were made widely available to all adults just before Christmas, and Moe said 30 per cent of people who could, have received their booster.