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Saskatchewan re-enacts emergency order to combat record COVID-19 cases

REGINA — It was supposed to be a “great Saskatchewan summer.” But on Monday the province saw 449 new cases of COVID-19 -- its highest single-day count of new infections during the pandemic.
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REGINA — It was supposed to be a “great Saskatchewan summer.”

But on Monday the province saw 449 new cases of COVID-19 -- its highest single-day count of new infections during the pandemic.

The same day, it also re-enacted an emergency order to deal with a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations. There were 209 people in hospital with COVID-19, 41 of them in intensive care.

The order, which previously ended July 11, gives the government the power to redirect health-care workers to areas experiencing pressure from COVID-19.

And the Saskatchewan Health Authority activated a plan to reduce elective surgeries in order to free up staff, mainly to care for unvaccinated patients in hospital with the virus.

"We can't care for you when there's nowhere to put you,” said Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease physician in Regina.   

“And it's not just a matter of where. It's a matter of no one to actually look after you.”   

Premier Scott Moe said last week that 17,000 health-care worker shifts were unfilled in July, an increase of 160 per cent from the year prior.  

Beds are limited as well. The health authority said it increased its 79 intensive care beds to 130 to accommodate a projected need for 80 COVID-19 intensive care patients, while also leaving beds for 50 ICU patients without COVID-19.   

“The trends are not pointing in a safe direction right now,” Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said Friday.

Moe said the rise in summer cases has put a “tremendous strain” on the province’s health-care system, but his Saskatchewan Party government will not implement any restrictions at this time. He said he believes vaccination is a choice.

The premier tweeted several times over the summer about having a “great Saskatchewan summer." It's a phrase that was also used by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Saskatchewan and Alberta now face the highest COVID-19 rates in the country, which are putting strain on their health-care systems.

“The writing was certainly on the wall, and that’s why people have been raising the alarm for many weeks already,” said Cory Neudorf, an epidemiologist and interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

“There was time to get ahead of this and institute some fairly simple measures ... it would have blunted that wave considerably to what we are seeing right now.”  

Saskatchewan’s rate of cases in the last week was 217 per 100,000 people, according to data from Health Canada. That's triple the national average of 71 cases per 100,000 people.

Wong said the province needs to implement more policy to address the burden on the health system.  

"Once you have all that data that shows that you know your hospitals and ICUs are at significant danger of being overrun and you're facing triage ... most decision-makers and policy-makers would normally pivot in ways that would help get us out of that,” he said.

He said some provinces like British Columbia have brought in more aggressive measures in recent weeks. Alberta even reinstituted a mask mandate for indoor public spaces.

In the near future, Wong said, health-care workers “will not be able to provide critical care support for everyone who needs it.”  

“Like now, it's probably not the time to do anything really, really kind of too exciting. Just lay low, don't get sick. Don't get any sort of big trauma or anything like that,” Wong said. “Everybody thinks the system's going to be there for them.” 

The province’s chief medical health officer said consistent mask use and an uptick in vaccination to 85 per cent from 70 per cent, would reduce all hospitalizations by up to 70 per cent.    

The province has said it has no plans at this time to implement a mask mandate or a vaccine passport.

“Certainly, in places like Saskatchewan, if we’re not going to change some of those policies, then people’s behaviours also don’t change,” Neudorf said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press