Saskatchewan’s top doctor warns against gatherings to keep essential services going

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is asking the public to stop gatherings except for work and school.

On Thursday, the province reported 913 new cases of COVID-19 — an all-time high — with a test positivity rate of 28%.

Dr Saqib Shahab warned that this number would increase over the next two to four weeks and said it was time to stop all unnecessary indoor gatherings.

“It’s key to mitigating the surge,” Shahab said.

“Omicron is so ambiguous that it will transmit anywhere, whether you’re sitting with two people outside your household or having a gathering of 15 or 20 people.”

He said people who need to gather for events such as funerals and weddings should do so in the safest way possible by wearing masks and taking rapid tests before attending.

Shahab said limiting gatherings was necessary to prevent frontline workers from getting sick and to preserve essential services.

“It’s a different phase, a phase where it’s not just [maintaining] hospitals that will be the biggest challenge, but also in all sectors – essential, non-essential, small and large workplaces. Continuing the work is going to be a challenge,” Shahab said.

He said if people don’t follow the recommendation, the Saskatchewan Party government should consider public health measures, including a limit on the size of gatherings.

There are no limits to gatherings now.

“From my side, nothing should be ruled out, but the government has historically relied on the people of Saskatchewan to really change their behavior and do the right thing,” Shabab said.

“It will be up to the government to decide if this is sufficient or if further measures through public health orders are necessary.”

He also recommended that people limit inter-provincial travel to prevent the highly transmissible variant of Omicron from spreading prematurely to other communities.

“Omicron is less severe. [But] it is by no means something that we should ignore,” he said.

The Omicron variant is five to eight times more transmissible than the Delta variant, and the number of reported cases is no longer an accurate measure of the number of people infected.

“Other factors will need to be considered as transmission increases, which we won’t be able to accurately measure because 30-40% of actual cases will be reported through PCR testing,” Shahab said.

He noted that the health authority was closely monitoring hospitalizations instead.

Marlo Pritchard, who heads Saskatchewan’s Public Safety Agency, said the number of cases will continue to rise, but the province has yet to see an increase in hospitalizations.

There are 100 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 12 in intensive care.

The province has begun reporting the number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 while hospitalized for other illnesses or injuries.

Shahab said it was important to monitor how Omicron affects people so they know whether to add more acute care beds.

“Because of this high prevalence of Omicron, for every 100 hospitalizations, a significant percentage will test positive,” he said, explaining that the disease didn’t necessarily land them in the hospital.

“They will be monitored if Omicron complicates their disease, which (could) be totally unrelated like a broken leg or it could complicate it if someone had a heart attack or lung disease.”

For example, 42 of 100 COVID-19-related hospitalizations were diagnosed while people were hospitalized for other reasons.

Unlike previous strains of COVID-19, Shahab said it’s still unclear whether Omicron causes hospitalizations.

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Michelle J. Kelley