Province to limit PCR testing, reduce number of dashboard updates

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

The province will be eliminating the use of PCR testing for COVID-19 and reducing the number of dashboard updates starting next week.

This was among a series of changes announced during the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre media briefing Thursday morning that outlined the province’s plan for living with COVID-19.

The biggest change involves Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) PCR testing, which will be reserved for patients who have the highest risk.

In terms of PCR testing, I think this is similar to what many other provinces have done,” Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said. “Starting February 7 PCR testing will have to be done by calling HealthLine 811 and it really will be for priority populations.”

The online appointment booking system will be discontinued Feb. 7, with walk-in and drive thru testing sites discontinued over the coming week.

We already know that many people have access to self-testing,” Shahab said. “Even if (they) don’t have access or choose not to self-test, many people stay home for the five days.

We are all practicing these principals, but these are now being formalized starting Feb.7,” he added.

Services provided through SHA testing and assessment centres will be redistributed to primary care sites through the month of February. Shahab said the province has learned a lot about Omicron over the past six weeks, and that’s helped spur the transition.

Omicron is more transmissible, but Shahab said it has a short incubation period, and does not cause symptoms in many people who test positive for it. Even when symptoms are present, he explained, they are rarely severe. However, he added that vaccinations will still be important going forward.

We also know that thankfully a large proportion of the population is vaccinated with two doses, (and) there is increasing adoption of booster doses,” he said. “That remains critical both to reduce severe outcomes from the current wave and to protect us in the future especially for people at high risk.”

Despite Omicron’s less severe symptoms, Shahab said the province will likely see an increase in hospitalizations over the next one to two weeks. That’s because the Omicron search only recently peaked.

We understand the tremendous pressure this is placing on the health system and how the health system is adapting to manage omicron which is presenting in a slightly different way compared to previous strains,” he said.

At-home rapid testing has enabled individuals to self-manage, given the prevalence of asymptomatic or mild illness for the majority of those who contract Omicron. Shahab said residents now have reasonable self-management tools to safely navigate day-to-day activities.

With the original strain 80 per cent of us were able to self-manage at home,” Shahab said. “With Delta, it was actually 95 per cent (who) were able to self-manage at home, but five per cent did need some hospital care. With Omicron, it’s much less than one per cent who need some hospital care. The vast majority of us are able to self-manage which includes monitoring for symptoms, staying home if you are unwell, self-testing with a rapid antigen test,” Shahab said.

Healthcare workers and essential workers under the current public health order will continue to be eligible for PCR tests to protect Saskatchewan’s essential services. Medical health officers may also order PCR testing as part of outbreak investigations, particularly in at-risk settings like long-term care and personal care homes, and other congregate living facilities.

Residents who require PCR test results for travel, insurance claims including potential Workers’ Compensation Board claims, or in lieu of proof of vaccination, will be required to purchase a test from a private lab service provider for documentation.

Shahab said the new measures would help streamline testing for the most at risk populations.

Priority populations include hospitalized patients, those admitted or transferred between acute, long-term care or personal care homes, and high risk populations as ordered by the medical health officer. These include residents in long-term care, personal care homes and congregate living facilities and international or travellers from areas of concern,

Priority symptomatic persons eligible for testing include health care workers or essential workers who have a negative rapid antigen test but remain symptomatic, those with chronic illness (diabetes, history of cancer, cardiac failure, etc.), symptomatic people living or working in First Nation and Métis communities, surgical patients with symptoms or a positive rapid antigen test who are scheduled or expecting to receive surgery within the next 90 days, pregnant patients who are symptomatic and more than 30 weeks gestation, and symptomatic immunocompromised individuals. This includes all transplant donors and recipients prior to and post-transplant; all oncology patients prior to, receiving or post chemotherapy and newborns born to COVID-19-positive parents, prior to discharge.

The province is also changing outbreak management. Public health will continue to investigate severe cases and shift resources to focus on outbreak management in settings where the risk of severe health outcomes is highest​

Public health will continue to investigate outbreaks in acute care settings, long-term care and integrated facilities, personal care homes, correctional facilities and congregate living settings including shelters and group homes. Outbreaks in long-term care and personal care homes will continue to be publicly reported at the provinces website.

The province will also no longer investigate outbreaks related to public mass gatherings/events, places of worship, workplaces, daycares, and educational setting. These venues and organizations will continue to be supported by local public health with transmission mitigation planning and standard surveillance protocols.

The province will also end daily reporting and the COVID-19 dashboard effective Feb. 7.

COVID-19 surveillance will now align with reporting for other communicable diseases. Indicators continue to be monitored and contribute to routine surveillance for COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses.

Starting the week of Feb. 7, public health will begin reporting COVID-19 epidemiological information weekly on Thursdays.

Shahab said that the first weekly report will be on Thursday, Feb. 10 but the report will have a two or three-day lag.

It’s always important to look at the past seven days, the seven-day average and that of course will continue to inform not just the healthcare system and public health but the public also in terms of a focus on weekly reporting. And then based on the epidemiology if, as anticipated, transmission of omicron comes down to very low levels over March we anticipate that in April the COVID-19 surveillance will transition to community based profile,” he said.

All of this will obviously inform the public in terms of action they should take,” Shahab said.

This weekly integrated report will provide the new laboratory-confirmed cases, deaths, tests, and vaccination information overall and by zone. The provincial COVID-19 dashboard will be discontinued and its information archived.

The province reminded residents to continue to follow guidelines that have proven useful to stopping the spread of COVID-19. This includes immediately self-isolate and self-test with even the mildest cold- or flu-like symptoms, wearing your best mask whenever you are outside your home or when meeting friends and family you know to be at high risk, and getting vaccinated, including your third/booster dose as soon as you are eligible.