Saskatchewan’s daily new cases of COVID-19 have been coming down, but it wasn’t enough for the provincial government to relax public health restrictions at this time. On Feb. 16, Premier Scott Moe announced that the current public health order will remain in effect until March 19, 2021.
That will be a little over a full year of COVID-19 restrictions in Saskatchewan, as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Everything from professional sports leagues to schools and small businesses were shut down in the first wave of lockdowns, and it’s not over yet.
On Feb. 16, Saskatchewan’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases had fallen to 167, but that hasn’t been far enough.
However, upon reconsideration, the province will be adding a further 11,000 health care workers to the priority list for vaccination, accounting for about 60 per cent of all health care workers in the province. The announcement came a week after Minister of Health Paul Merriman announced that in almost all cases, vaccine distribution would be based on a person’s age, starting with the oldest. This led to backlash from a number of groups, including nurses, police and teachers, who felt they should receive priority treatment.
Premier Scott Moe said during the Feb. 16 regular COVID-19 briefing at the Legislature, “Last week, after we announced that the Phase 2 sequencing of the vaccination plan would be primarily based on age, I said that our officials were having another look at including some additional categories of health care workers in Phase 1 of our vaccination plan, and that work has now been completed. We will be moving a little more than 11,000 additional health care workers right into Phase 1 of the plan. These include anyone that is directly involved in delivering COVID 19 immunizations in Phase 1 and throughout into Phase 2. This would include physicians, pharmacists and other Saskatchewan Health Authority health care providers that are directly involved in delivering these immunizations; our immunization teams, if you will.”
The additional health care workers include individuals directly involved in delivering COVID-19 immunizations in Phase 2, including physicians (up to 2,600), pharmacists (up to 1,200) and other SHA health care providers involved in delivering COVID-19 immunizations.
They will also include those who work in anesthesia/operating rooms, all other critical care areas, hemodialysis, vaccination teams, radiology technicians, ECG/echo, phlebotomy/lab workers handling COVID-19 specimens, and home care (direct care providers).
Asked if these additions would add much of a delay to the vaccine rollout, Moe said that at current rates of vaccine deliveries, they would, but if the vaccine deliveries ramp up as expected, it wouldn’t make much difference.
“Our mass vaccination program is still going to roll out, primarily focused and primarily, primarily by age, starting with our elderly people first. We know that age is the number one risk factor for series outcomes from COVID. So vaccinating by age is the best way for us to reduce those very serious negative outcomes.”
He noted this approach has been taken in the United Kingdom, and it has shown a 32 per cent reduction in COVID-19 related deaths among people over the age 80, according to the University of Oxford.
He noted, “Our vaccination program continues to move ahead as quickly as we are able given the very limited supply of vaccines that we are receiving from the federal government.”
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab noted this is only the second week the seven-day average new cases has been under 200 in recent months. He emphasised complying with public health restrictions, including three-metre spacing between restaurant tables.
“It’s really important to keep the numbers low so that vaccination clinics, as they start ramping up, they can happen in a smooth manner,” he said.
Shahab said the supply of vaccines available does not allow for them to be prioritized, but as vaccine plants pick up production in March, April and May, essential workers may be prioritized within their age groups. He said, “As they are sequenced by age, it’s is going to be important, but anything that we can do to, prioritize them, as they become eligible based on age, I think is going to be essential.”
“I think this is the light at the end of the tunnel. But we do have to stay the course for the next four weeks with the current public health measures in place,” Shahab said.
Moe held out the hope of possibly expanding family bubbles before March 19, depending on how things go.
Moe pointed out that the federal government was prioritizing vaccine deliveries to the northern territories, and that has had an impact on Saskatchewan. He pointed out that southwest Saskatchewan has been shut out, for instance.
He said, “There’s consequences to that decision as well. We’ve heard the southwest of Saskatchewan and Swift Current and surrounding areas, have not yet had access to their first dose of vaccine, in part due to supply challenges that we’ve had, where we’ve had to use incoming vaccine per second doses.”
He explained that hiving off some of the Moderna vaccines to the territories is going to result in lower numbers of Moderna vaccines coming to Saskatchewan.
As a result, Saskatchewan is going to be short about 1,000 doses for second shots for that many people. He said, “When you do prioritize specific groups outside of the age-based category, there are consequences, and it does ultimately make for a more challenging vaccination environment.”
Shahab said if the second dose is administered in under 42 days, it does not have a negative impact.
Moe pointed out that northern Saskatchewan communities, which are predominately Indigenous, have also been prioritized in this province’s vaccine rollout, especially for people over 50 in those communities.
He said Saskatchewan will receive maybe 65 to 75 per cent of the vaccine doses expected by the end of February.
Moe said if any pharmacists or physicians choose not to be part of vaccination teams, he asked that they not get their vaccines on a priority basis, so those “very scarce vaccine resources that we have are for people that are actually participating in the vaccine rollout here in the province.”
“We’re in the final stretch. And I would say that there is some hope on the way,” Moe concluded, “I think things are going to happen quite quickly in the months ahead, most certainly when you compare it to how quickly things that have happened over the course of the last 11 months. So, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We need to stick this out, just a little bit longer with the variants that are here, and keep our numbers trending down, as we head for the finish line and I just once again thanks to Saskatchewan people for everything that they’ve done up to including today they have responded in the way that I expected, in a remarkable fashion.”