Shahab expects majority of province could be vaccinated by spring

Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. (Government of Saskatchewan/Screenshot)

Wednesday’s COVID-19 press conference provided a glimpse at how the province expects a vaccine rollout to go.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said that based on the current timeline, the majority of the province’s population could be vaccinated by April/May.

A detailed vaccine rollout plan will come out next week but Minister of Health Paul Merriman said the government expects healthcare workers and long-term care residents will receive the vaccine first. He added this will be based on the advice of public health officials.

Merriman said once the province has delivered a safe and effective vaccine to a significant number of residents, life can start getting back to normal.

He added that the vaccine rollout will be a “huge undertaking” that will require thousands of healthcare workers, support staff, transportation, and storage among other logistical issues.

The province doesn’t currently have an exact timeline on when the vaccines will arrive in Saskatchewan, but the federal government has said that the first deliveries will be early in the new year.

Saskatchewan’s per capita share in the first quarter of 2021 is about 180,000 doses, which is enough to vaccinate 90,000 people. This is solely based on the delivery from Pfizer and Moderna who applied for vaccine approvals.

Two other companies, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have applied to have their vaccines approved. Merriman said if these approvals go through it could result in more vaccines being delivered faster.

“This is how we get back to normal in Saskatchewan. It is how our health system will get back to normal. This is how our lives will get back to normal. It is quite literally the shot in the arm that Saskatchewan needs,” Merriman said on Wednesday.

When asked if the government would be releasing an education campaign to dispel myths about vaccinations, Merriman said he encourages everyone to get vaccinated but if people decide not to that is their personal choice and the government can’t force it upon them.

Merriman said the government has a “robust plan” that Shahab was involved with during the H1N1 vaccination process, and Saskatchewan also has one of the highest immunization rates in the country.

“I’m feeling very comfortable with how we’re going to distribute when the vaccine arrives,” he said.

Shahab recommends “quieter” Christmas

Although we won’t know until the next week or two if restrictions will be lifted or loosened before the holidays, Shahab recommended that families have a “quieter” Christmas and limit gatherings to only their immediate household.

Shahab said the spike in cases we’re seeing now after Thanksgiving would be much worse for Christmas if restrictions aren’t followed and large gatherings occur.

He’s hopeful that case numbers will go down during the winter break and students will have a safe return to school in the new year. The plan is to still have a typical two-week long break for students, however the government will look into extending the winter break if needed.

Shahab said an increase in cases in school is the result of high community transmission, and in many cases acquisition is happening in the community and not at school.

“We’ve had a few situations where there’s been transmission in a school bus or classroom,” Shahab said, adding there were examples of inconsistent mask-use on school buses.

He said that parents, teachers, and children have done well following guidelines but that we need to continue to work with children at home to make sure they understand proper mask-use and other guidelines.

Some high schools have transitioned to alternate day attendance, or online/remote education in the past few weeks. Shahab says this is more for operational reasons.

“If there are many classes already online, it may be easier operationally for the whole school to go online,” Shahab said.

Shahab also presented a modelling update at Wednesday press conference. The modelling is not a prediction, but rather shows what could happen over the next six months based on actions taken.

Compared to other provinces, Saskatchewan is third highest in terms of active cases and new cases per 100,000 population.

Hospitalization numbers are going up, and this includes all age groups Shahab said, although there have been more in the 40 plus age group.

Shahab said this week and next are critical to see if we are going in a downward trend.

Shahab encouraged people who test positive for COVID-19 to contact their family physician who can offer medical support virtually. Physicians can also advise you where to access medical support if you need it.

Merriman said the number of people’s contacts are going down, and that the less people there are to contact the easier it will be for contract tracers to reach everyone.

Shahab added people’s close contacts should not be beyond their immediate family members.

As for loosening restrictions, Shahab reiterated that he will feel comfortable once we’ve reached an average of 60 cases or below a day.

“Anything between 60 and 120, we are in a concern area,” Shahab said.

Currently the province is reporting an average of 274 new cases day.