Saskatchewan holding the line on prevention despite spike in coronavirus cases

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Saskatchewan is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases unlike anything experienced since the coronavirus pandemic first began four months ago.

On Monday, the reproductive rate of coronavirus (Rt) in Saskatchewan was 2.2, meaning for each person infected they will infect roughly two to three others.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe responded to the growing number of cases saying, “I know we are all some level suffering of pandemic fatigue and most of us have probably been a little less careful than we have in the spring. That may be why we’re seeing a few case numbers starting to creep up again in parts of the province as well, I don’t think it’s any cause for alarm just yet.”

Read more: Canadian Hutterite colonies struggle with coronavirus outbreaks

The province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, noted that actions needed to be taken to stop what he called an “increasing risk of transmission.”

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“We must do what we can to reduce, what is still a fairly low risk of transmission, but certainly an increasing risk of transmission in Saskatchewan,” Shahab said.

By Wednesday Saskatchewan’s Rt had jumped to 2.94 — and the spread in Hutterite communities is even higher.

“The effective reproductive number now for central and south Saskatchewan is 3.19, so concerningly high,” Shahab said.

“With over 300 members, we’re running above a five per cent infection rate in those communities. This is as high of an infection rate as anything I’m aware of in North America, and that is why we’re taking this very seriously,” Moe asserted.

The spread of the virus has led to 18 deaths in Saskatchewan, two occurring this week, both victims from the south region where cases of COVID-19 have climbed by nearly 200 in the past month.

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“As expected with the increase in cases, hospitalizations are also trending upwards and this should be a great concern to all of us,” Shahab said.

Read more: Moe calls outbreak in Hutterite colonies ‘severe,’ active coronavirus cases jump over 300 in Sask.

Saskatchewan’s former deputy medical health officer, Dr. Anne Huang, says she had a great level of concern before Wednesday’s spike in cases.

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“The rising rate of community transmission coupled with a much higher rate of social interactions means we’re going to see the case counts rising much faster than we have seen in the past,” she said.

Huang says she believes there’s still time to get Saskatchewan’s growing outbreaks under control, but that will require stronger regulations, like mandatory masks.

“I can’t think of a good reason why we hesitate, implementing a low cost, low risk, effective intervention to help reduce the community transmission in Saskatchewan, which will allow us to maintain as much of the economic activities and social activity as we can.”

On Wednesday, Canadian Press writer Stephanie Taylor asked the province why, despite the increase in cases, they have yet to take more direct action.

“The government does have power to issue stay-at-home orders, for police to issue fines, for roadblocks and take more heavy-handed approaches to stop this, which I’m sure is being spread quite quickly in a communal setting like a Hutterite colony. Why, given the severity, and how quickly this is spreading, not take measures such as those,” Taylor asked.

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Saskatchewan’s rural and remote health minister, Warren Kaeding, instead focused on current protocols.

”I would say right now we’re certainly encouraging compliance in each of those communities and we are getting that in the majority of cases but we’ve never precluded either that we wouldn’t have to take further steps if they’re required,” Kaeding responded.

One of the measures the province is taking is to visit each Hutterite community in Saskatchewan to continue testing and contact tracing, but measures like those taken in Northern Saskatchewan earlier in the pandemic have yet to occur; although Kaeding says they’re not off the table.

“We’ve shown that in certain communities around [the] province as well that weren’t able to provide the resources, maybe were shorthanded in what they could do to set up roadblocks, and they asked us to help and intervene and take part and support them in those actions,” Kaeding said.

“If that opportunity arises, we will certainly support them in that,” he continued.

Moe also admitted there are other actions the province could be taking, interjecting to note “there are powers that the government does have and there may be instances in the near future where possibly those powers may have to be utilized.”

When that will happen is unclear.

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The province has repeatedly said they do expect to use stronger language around masking but that’s not expected until the fall.

Some experts say it should come sooner.

Read more: Saskatchewan’s top doctor recommends wearing reusable cloth masks come the fall

“The assumption of waiting for the fall is that was when we thought we’re going to see the rise in case counts but we’re seeing many rises of cases counts right now in Saskatchewan already,” Huang countered.

As cases continue to spike, all eyes are on provincial officials, awaiting their next move.

“If we just respond to these fundamental measures only after we see an increase in case numbers then to a large extent we have not been able to prevent something that all of us have been able to prevent,” Shahab said Wednesday.

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