Province urges caution as 56 COVID-19 cases reported over three days

Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks to media during a COVID-19 update in Regina on Sunday, March 15, 2020. -- Screen capture.

The provincial government urged Saskatchewan residents to take precautions as one of the largest surge in weekend COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began was reported on Monday.

The province did away with daily updates on weekends and holidays just prior to Canada Day, so Monday’s update included data from three different days.

From Saturday to Monday, 56 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the province. Much of the spread was attributed to the southwest and west-central portions of the province.

No additional cases were reported in the north region, which includes Prince Albert.

The central region, which includes areas west and east of Saskatoon, saw one new case on Saturday, three on Sunday and 27 on Monday, which the south saw 15 new cases over the three days, including 13 on Saturday.

Three people are in the hospital, including two in intensive care, one in Saskatoon and one in the south.

“Previously-reported COVID-19 infections in the southwest now stretch farther and there is growing evidence of spread throughout southwest and west-central Saskatchewan,” the government wrote.

Cases were reported in several rural municipalities, including Maple Creek, Auvergne, Biggar, Carmichael, Eagle Creek, Harris, Lac Pelletier, Newcombe, Perdue, Kellross and Prairiedale.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), Ministry of Health and Hutterian Safety Council are working together to allow for increased testing and contact tracing in the areas.

That work has contributed to the sudden rise in cases, officials said, as public health is actively and aggressively contacting more individuals and conducting tests in those communities. More resources are going to be added to the area fo further increase testing, contact tracing and other support.

Of the cases in the southwest, eight are not connected to any others. Several of the cases are a result of multiple people testing positive in communal living conditions. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Monday that the two Hutterite colonies in the Maple Creek area that saw an outbreak a few weeks ago now have very few active cases remaining.

Shahab added that, in communal living settings, some practices need to pause if there’s an outbreak.

He said the decrease in the Maple Creek area is a sign that through “early intervention, through testing, tracing and guidance, these outbreaks do come under control quickly.”

He added that as the province opens up, more cases will be detected, and it’s unlikely Saskatchewan will see a return to the low number of cases seen during days where more restrictive conditions existed.

“As we are out and about more we will see more individuals test positive,” Shahab said.

“We will not get to as low a number as we were in lockdown, but we need to keep our case numbers manageable. We all have to be aware of our own symptoms. This will continue for a while.”

That means, Shahab said, it’s as important as it has ever been that anyone with symptoms, even mild cold or flu-like symptoms, self-isolate and seek testing.

The province announced that as of Tuesday, there will be no restrictions on testing and anyone who requests one will receive one.

Priority, though, will be reserved for patients who have symptoms or are more vulnerable due to underlying health conditions.

Shahab said residents shouldn’t wait for a PSA to mention their community to go out and seek testing.

“If you have ay symptoms, seek testing If you have any concerns that you may have been in contact (with someone who is sick), seek testing,” he said.

“That is really important because by seeking testing, if you test positive, public health can follow up on your contacts The other (important) thing is to stay home.”

The point, he said, is to avoid any “superspreader” events.

“The only difference between February and now is … the expectation that following these guidelines we will see occasional transmissions or a cluster, but we won’t see situations where 35 out of 50 people at an event were exposed,” Shahab said.

He again recommended that everyone carry a mask with them and get comfortable wearing it, especially as the weather cools and people begin to move indoors.

For now, he said, wearing a mask is a recommendation. If cases continue to balloon, it may become a stronger recommendation or even an order, he said.

“At this point, having it as a recommendation is good.”

Masks should be worn, he said, anywhere inside where a two-metre distance cannot be maintained between people.

Shahab added that cases seen in Saskatoon and Regina are occasional cases.

“There is no further clusters of concern in Regina or Saskatoon at this point.”

A public advisory about an employee of a bar in Saskatoon resulted in no additional cases, Shahab said. One additional case, though, was linked to a similar advisory issued about Emma Lake.

SHA launching phase three of its plan this week

More medical services will begin operating this week as SHA enacts the third phase of its plan to return operations to pre-COVID levels.

Services resuming as of yesterday included:

Further mental health and addictions support, including the opening of social detox and addictions inpatient treatment

Additional chronic disease management/wellness programs/stroke prevention and

Specialized services for clients with developmental disabilities, autism and brain injuries.

Since service began to resume in mid-May, 544 health services have re-started across the province.

Regina and southern parts of the province have seen more services return than Saskatoon and the north, a COVID-19 in northern regions required more response personnel to support it.

“Overall, we’ve been pleased with our ability to bring services back online, while still implementing strategies to keep patients and providers safe,” SHA Chief Executive Officer Scott Livingstone said in a press release.

“Patients and their families have been very understanding of the additional screening measures and changes to how they had traditionally received service. Both staff and physicians are happy to be seeing their patients again, as well.”

Surgical volumes are also going up. The plan for phase three is to increase them to between 75 and 85 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

That, though, varies from community-to-community as a result of what staff members are available.

In Moose Jaw, surgical levels have grown to beyond their pre-COVID-19 capacity because of new surgeons recruited to the community.

The SHA said Monday it is working with its partners, such as doctors, to focus on the backlog of surgeries.

Medical imaging has increased to 90 per cent of pre-COVID service levels overall. MRIs are operating at 91 per cent, and CT scans at 93 per cent.

Virtual care continues to be offered when it’s possible. More than 175,000 appointments have been done virtually since March.

Livingstone said the province remains focused on its COVID-19 response, even as it reopens. Part of the focus is on ramping up testing and preparedness for the fall, in anticipation of a possible second wave.

SHA labs are currently processing 600 tests per day, with the capacity to perform upwards of 1,800 tests daily.

NDP critical of move away from daily case count updates

With the 56-case spike seen over the weekend, NDP leader Ryan Meili said he wished the government would return to posting case count updates daily.

“Active cases more than doubled, from 43 to 90 over three days, without a peep from the government,” he said in a statement.

“The lack of communication coming from this health minister is unacceptable.”

Meili said residents have done what the government and health officials asked them to do, at real personal and financial costs. For that to continue, the minister of health “has to be honest and timely” with information, Meili said.

He said the NDP has been critical of what it sees as slow initial response, downplaying of the La Loche outbreak and the delay in notification that came following the Lloydminster outbreak.

“We thought Minister Reiter would have learned his lesson. We were wrong,” said Meili. “Now is not the time to shut down on public communication about the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic doesn’t take a break on weekends. Updated information should be reported daily. Period.”

Visiting Prince Albert to walk with Tristen Durocher Friday, Meili told the Herald what he wanted to see from the government as clusters of cases popped up.

“This isn’t done,” Meili said.

“We need to remember that. We’ve done a great job as Saskatchewan people doing the work to flatten the curve. That work isn’t done and this virus has not gone away. Keep focusing on maintaining physical distancing and doing the things you can in your own family. What we need the government to make sure is that they’re recognizing there needs to be a plan b … for our economy. If case numbers start to rise, what are they going to do?”