Province returns to daily updates, responds to criticisms after COVID-19 spike over weekend

SCREEN CAPTURE Saskatchewan’s chief medical officer Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks during a press conference last year.

Saskatchewan’s premier and chief medical health officer gave the public a little bit more insight into when communities are identified during COVID-19 clusters or outbreaks during a news conference Tuesday.

Scott Moe joined Dr. Saqib Shahab to address a variety of matters Tuesday as criticism, especially surrounding communication and notification of cases, grew.

Some of that criticism came Monday as the province announced it had found 56 new cases of COVID-19 across just three days. As of July 1, Saskatchewan halted its daily case count updates, instead choosing to only provide updates on business days.

That move was roundly criticized Monday by the NDP and others. Moe explained Tuesday that the province will return to daily updates.

“our case number had been pretty stable” at the time the daily updates ended, Moe said. Additionally, the province wanted to give a break to some of the health care staff who were putting the daily updates together.

Shahab emphasized that just because updates stopped, it didn’t mean public health took a day off.

Still, Moe said Tuesday, ‘We want to be … as transparent as we are able. We will be going back to daily reporting.”

That wasn’t Moe’s only announcement Tuesday. He also said Saskatchewan fully supports an expansion of the border closure between Canada and the US as the situation south of the border is “challenging” and “getting worse.”

He also applauded the far north, which not long ago had dozens of cases, to taking measures to get the active case down to just six.

“Case numbers will be different from day to day,” Moe said.

“What shouldn’t be different is our behaviour. We have to keep doing the same thing every day  While we have done an excellent job overall … we have seen and continue to see local outbreaks that show just how quickly this virus can spread if we let our guard down for even a moment. The risk has not gone away. The virus can spread at any place at any time, so we all have to do our part.:”

Shahab said that while a large growth in cases is a concern, he also looks at how cases spread. Only eight of those cases, he said, were pop up cases. The rest were related to communal and family living environments.

“If we were to see a high number of cases throughout the province not linked to each other … that would be an area where we would be getting more concerned and would have to deploy extra resources,” he said.

The weekend’s situation wasn’t like that, he added, as many were connected and traceable.

Following brief comments, Moe and Shahab took questions, many looking for clarification as to when communities and businesses are named in public health advisories and when they aren’t, as it seemed inconsistent.

That’s because, as Shahab explained, each situation is different.

Public service announcements are issued when public health officials can’t reach all close contacts, or in cases where someone may have come into contact with the public.

He also said they’ll be used when there is a pattern of unrelated spread.

Most of the cases found over the weekend, he said, were not the result of community spread, but were found as the Ministry of Health and SHA worked proactively with communal living settings to screen, test and contact large numbers of people.

Shahab compared that active case finding to a similar process that was used in La Loche during that community’s outbreak. The process finds more cases, as it tests everyone, including those who don’t seek testing because they’re asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms.

That education, contact tracing and testing and investigation work were being done with the cooperation of communities who live in communal settings.

Shahab said it would be just like if a family gathering generated a handful of cases — if all contacts can be traced, it would be unlikely a public health advisory would be issued.

He also said the government is wary about issuing notices that would single out a specific, identifiable group. He said in past pandemics or outbreaks, such actions have led to the stigmatization of people from identifiable groups.

“(COVID-19) can happen anywhere,” he said.

“This can involve me and my household and my friends and family We have to give the same consideration to families facing this as we would ourselves.”

Shahab and SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said the partnership with the Hutterian Safety Council was a success.

That council “has been a tremendous asset,” Shahab said.

It has allowed the SHA to come to colonies and work with people to get access, instead of relying on the communities to come to the SHA.

“That cooperation is going to go a long way to contain these outbreaks.”

As for the Prince Albert region, Shahab said since flagging the area as a concern, testing numbers have gone up. The region had an average testing rate compared to the rest of the province when six cases ended up in the hospital, unconnected to each other, and generating over 100 contacts.

Contacts were tested, and general members of the public also went to get testing. Shahab said there’s been no further concern for the area, but reiterated that everyone, across Saskatchewan, should self-isolate and seek testing by calling 811 for even mild symptoms.

“Our new normal is not just keeping our physical distance and keeping our contacts low, but also be aware that if we’re feeling unwell or anyone in our family is feeling unwell we need to seek testing. Most of the time it is a mild case and we will recover at home,” Shahab said.

He also advised that people will have to think hard before attending or hosting an event such as a funeral or wedding, especially if case numbers pick up.

‘We have to be ready to adapt, especially social cases when we see an increase in transmission. We should be ready to reschedule,” he said.

“It’s not where you’re going — it’s why you’re going and what you’re doing. Those are general principles that apply to all of us. It has been hard for all of us. All of us can count instances where we didn’t go to a funeral. Other families have rescheduled weddings or other important milestones. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”