Updated as of 5:59 p.m., Monday, May 4.
No new cases in Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital as of late Monday morning
At 34 new cases of COVID-19, Saskatchewan had its highest daily increase on Monday since the beginning of the pandemic. That same day, the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan came into effect.
Twenty-nine of the 34 new cases are in La Loche and surrounding areas.
The new figures bring the far north to a total of 97 active cases, accounting for over 60 per cent of the province’s total of 154 active cases. The province reported eight of these cases as presumptive on Saturday, which have now been confirmed by the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory in Regina.
Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) CEO Scott Livingstone said no new cases have stemmed from the positive case identified last week in Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital.
“I can confirm that the positive case was related to La Loche,” said Livingstone.
The SHA identified 91 health care workers who came in contact with the patient, all of which are self-isolating and asymptomatic. Forty-one of them have been tested so far, and the rest are expected to be tested by the end of Tuesday.
The seven patients identified as contacts—but didn’t come in close contact with the positive case—are also in self-isolation and haven’t experienced symptoms.
While that situation remains stagnant, the outbreak in La Loche continues to grow.
Livingstone said as of late Monday morning, there’s 76 positive cases directly related to La Loche and nine between the communities of Beauval, Île-à-la-Crosse, Buffalo Narrows and Jans Bay.
Premier Scott Moe urged residents in the north, and especially in the northwest, to stay in their communities and practice proper physical distancing.
“We need to have all hands on deck in that effort,” he said.
Moe added that due to the rural location, northerns may not have been as aware of preventative measures as those in southern communities.
“This is indicative, I think, of how this virus can spread if you let your guard down even for a moment.”
Moe received several questions about pausing the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan, which began on Monday, with consideration to the outbreak.
He said the province has paused it in the outbreak areas of La Loche and Lloydminster. Medical services such as dentistry, optometry and physical therapy weren’t allowed to reopen in those communities like in the rest of the province.
Other communities also saw the reopening of fishing and boat launching on Monday as part of phase one of the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan.
Phase two is set to begin on May 19, which includes the reopening of retail and select personal services like hairdressers and massage therapists. The dates of phases three, four and five are dependent on the outcome of the first two.
Moe said the province expected isolated outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Eradication is not possible with this virus. Eradicating it out of one community, even, is not possible and not a realistic goal,” said Moe.
“The goal is to keep our infection rates low enough so a) our health system can manage the infection rates here in our province and so that the minimum number of people are actually exposed to this virus until such time that we can have access to a vaccine.”
Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said most of the cases have identified exposures. Because of this, they can control the spread accordingly.
The La Loche outbreak began with travel between northwest Saskatchewan and an oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. It’s since rapidly transmitted in the La Loche area, which Shahab said has been faster and harder to control.
“Certainly if our overall numbers throughout the province start creeping up and there’s no identified exposure, I think that would be something that would be a cause for concern,” he said.
Shahab said the rest of the province has seen an average of 10 cases per day. Even if that number jumped to 20 or 30, he wouldn’t be concerned if the positive cases were isolated and controlled.
He said the rate of transmission is now at .93. This means that one positive case will transmit the virus to less than one other person on average.
“I feel confident that we are taking a very practical step forward in starting to open some segments of our economy,” said Moe.
NDP leader Ryan Meili, however, thinks otherwise. On Twitter, Meili said two weeks in between phases one and two of the plan is too quick.
“After a week of increasing cases of COVID-19, Premier Scott Moe should push pause on the May 19 phase two of his plan and re-evaluate next steps for the safety of SK people,” he wrote.
Other than the 29 new cases in the far north on Monday, there were four new cases in the north and one in the Saskatoon area. There were also two more recoveries, bringing that provincial total to 307.
As of Monday, 11 people are in hospital. Seven are receiving inpatient care, two in the northern region and five in the Saskatoon area, and four are in intensive care, three in Saskatoon and one in the north.
Northern leaders say residents travelling south to get groceries are being turned away
Northerners, along with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), are once again calling on the provincial government to better include First Nations and Métis leaders in its COVID-19 response.
In a Saturday news release, they said residents are being turned away when travelling south to get groceries.
The FSIN, northerners and NDP leader Ryan Meili have called for further inclusion earlier in the pandemic, before outbreaks hit Beauval and La Loche.
A news release said tensions have increased with the implementation of border and highway check stops in the northern region of Saskatchewan.
Beauval Mayor Nick Daigneault said the province assured that residents would be able to travel for groceries—that’s after the community’s only grocery store was closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
“Northerners and other essential service trucks are being turned around and threatened with tickets. It’s sending ripples through the northwest and triggering a lot of bad memories of isolation and paternalistic tactics by government,” he said.
“Our leaders’ concerns and input must be taken seriously and implemented because they are the ones who know and live in the north,” added Meadow Lake Tribal Council Chief Richard Ben.
“It’s our peoples’ lives that are at stake.”
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron renewed its recommendations for the government to close provincial borders.
“We are receiving calls that officers are stopping northerners from travelling south to get groceries. If the border closures and monitoring started weeks ago, our north wouldn’t be in the fight of their lives to stop the numerous outbreaks,” said Cameron.
“Our leaders must be at the table with the provincial government. We must have a unified line of defence against this invisible enemy and the longer it takes to establish this, the more lives remain in danger of COVID-19.”
Métis Nation calls for further northern supports, provides $1M
The Métis Nation of Saskatchewan (MN-S) is calling for an immediate, coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreaks in the north.
The MN-S COVID-19 response team was established on Mar. 12, when the first presumptive case was detected in Saskatchewan. A news release said President Glen McCallum and MN-S Health Minister Marg Friesen were working together on a response before that.
The MN-S is providing $1 million to address northern residents’ needs for community monitoring, isolation units and food security. This is in addition to support for housing and child care.
“Travel restrictions in the north are not enough. For the health and safety of our citizens, the time for discussing logistics has passed, we must act now,” said McCallum.
“This a concerning situation that affects the welfare and well-being of people and communities. People are ill. Elders are being lost. We need a coordinated response. This is an emergency. The operations to respond need to be in place.”
According to the release, the MN-S is working in partnership with First Nations and northern municipalities. It’s part of the incident command centre in Beauval, which was established for coordination among northern communities.
The MN-S has also been working with the SHA and federal ministers.