Sask hopes making first doses more convenient will reverse trend of lagging uptake among younger residents

Province also announces that fully-vaccinated residents won't be required to isolate when declared a close contact of known case

A nurse draws a dose from a vaccine vial in Prince Albert. Photo courtesy SHA.

The provincial government is refocusing its efforts on reaching more younger residents with first vaccine doses as the uptake rate among those under the age of 40 continues to lag.

The announcement was made during a press conference Tuesday, the same day Saskatchewan announced that it would not require asymptomatic individuals who are fully vaccinated to self-isolate if they’re identified as a close contact of a known COVID-19 case. Only unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated residents and anyone with symptoms would still be required to isolate for 14 days if they are identified as a close contact of a known case.

“Over the past 15 months, many of us have had to isolate,” Premier Scott Moe said.

“I was fortunate. I was able to work from home Some people don’t have that option. Being required to self-isolate has been a tremendous hardship for many in this province.”

Moe also renewed his call for the federal government to remove quarantine orders for citizens returning from international travel who have both their first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses.

“This is one more personal freedom that can be restored in short order,” Moe said.

Even as Moe praised those who have received one and two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the province was acknowledging that it is changing direction slightly to ensure more residents can receive their first, and eventually second, dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The province won’t move into the third stage of its reopening plan until at least 70 per cent of residents over the age of 18 have received at least one vaccine dose and three weeks have passed. As of Tuesday morning, that mark remained at 69 per cent.

Uptake has been much higher in older age groups than in younger ones. According to Tuesday’s numbers, Over 90 per cent of residents aged 70 and up have received at least one dose, with second dose vaccination rates in the oldest age groups also exceeding the 70 per cent mark.

The percentage of residents with their first dose remains high for the 60-69 age group at 85 per cent of that population. It dips to 73 per cent for residents in their 50s and 68 per cent of those in their 40s. Only 57 per cent of residents in their 30s have at least one dose in their arms and only half of those aged 18-29.

Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) officials said Tuesday that the issue isn’t one of confidence but rather complacency and convenience.

That means younger residents don’t have too many concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, yet haven’t received one for other reasons.

The SHA wants to change that.

“Today we’re going to mark another pivot in our vaccination campaign,” said SHA CEO Scott Livingstone.

 “Our goal has always been to make it as convenient as possible … so we can get back to normal.”

A high vaccine uptake, SHA said, isn’t just to reopen the province, but also to sustain that reopening by mitigating the risk of variants spreading.

“We are going to really focus on the younger age groups, which we know have a lower uptake than older populations,” said Derek Miller, SHA operations director.

That means opening pop-up clinics in malls and pedestrian areas, big-box grocery stores and neighbourhood clinics. It also means converting school clinics to family clinics where possible, so entire families can attend to receive their COVID-19 vaccination.

The province also highlighted dedicated first dose appointments and mobile clinics heading to workplaces such as hog barns and mine sites. Clinics could also come to flag football, softball and golf events, lakes where people gather on the weekend, waterparks and recreation areas and through a partnership with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The SHA will also begin opening fast pass, or bypass lanes, at drive-thru clinics for first doses only, so younger people who might be busy or who can’t wait in long lineups can get their doses faster.

At the same time, the province will work on decreasing complacency by highlighting the health risk of not getting vaccinated, with messaging aimed at a younger demographic. The goal, Miller said, is to ensure a seamless process and “make it as easy as possible” to get a first dose of the vaccine.

“Unvaccinated people are exponentially more likely to get sick, require hospitalization and die,” Miiller said.

“Saskatchewan people need relief for the restrictions on their lives, their livelihoods and freedoms. Saskatchewan residents deserve a summer free from fear of COVID.”

Premier Moe said while the focus will shift to making first doses easier, the province will also still be dedicated to distributing second doses, which are needed to protect against some of the more aggressive variants of the novel coronavirus.

He also ruled out a lottery or other incentive to help encourage more people to get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

“In this part of the world, you’re already winning by just getting vaccinated,” Moe said.

“You get to protect yourself from COVID. You get to protect your family, your friends, your loved ones and everyone around you.”

Moe said 92 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan are in unvaccinated individuals, and 82 per cent of those who are hospitalized aren’t vaccinated. He stressed that the only way to return to life as it was before the pandemic is to go and get vaccinated.

“Health, peace of mind, a safer province and a return to things as we once knew them, those are pretty great prizes in my mind,” Moe said.

‘We’ve already had nearly 700,000 very lucky winners. We did all that without a lottery and still have vaccines left.”

Moe also stressed the importance of receiving a second shot, highlighting variants, such as the Delta, which still turn up in people with only one of their two doses of a COIVD-19 vaccine.

“Some of the variants are being contracted by people who have only received their first dose, but transmission is low among those who are fully vaccinated,” he said.

He said the goal is for 80 per cent of the population to receive both doses by the late summer.