The novel coronavirus has spread or been detected in at least 37 different public locations across Saskatchewan since early July, according to a new analysis of provincial data by Global News and the Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ).
Journalists at Global and the institute compiled the numbers through a review of exposure alerts by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), news releases and published media reports. They indicate that the virus is showing up in multiple locations where people can gather such as restaurants, bars, stores and shopping malls.
But the province isn’t providing details of how many cases were linked to each location and whether any of Saskatchewan’s 150 active coronavirus cases can be linked back to exposure alerts at these locations. The provincial data also fails to identify cases where a single person may be visiting multiple places that expose others to the virus.
The provincial health authority did not immediately respond to questions from Global News asking about what information it’s collecting and how it’s deciding what to share with the public.
The province has shared some data showing that there have been a total of 1,484 cases in Saskatchewan since the beginning of the pandemic. Of those, 212 were travellers, 747 were transmitted to contacts of infected people, including through mass gatherings and 110 cases were under investigation by public health officials. The province has not been able to identify the source of infection for 415 cases.
Global News has been studying this data in partnership with the IIJ, which is based at Concordia University, as part of its Project Pandemic reporting initiative.
Across the country, more than 500 reported cases of the novel coronavirus were connected to outbreaks or confirmed infections at public places where people gather. More than 160 locations were identified in dozens of municipalities across seven provinces.
Grocery stores, big box stores named over and over
Grocery stores and big box stores are appearing as potential places of transmission time and time again in most regions.
In Regina, which is experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases, the four different businesses flagged in the past week have fallen under that umbrella. Golden Mile Superstore and Harbour Landing Walmart were each named twice in exposure alerts.
The Golden Mile Superstore previously closed in the spring due to a confirmed coronavirus case affecting an employee, but later reopened after doing a deep cleaning and saying that it was taking all precautions needed to keep employees and members of the public safe.
Walmart Canada CEO Horatio Barbeito has said the chain implemented numerous safety measures across Canada, including temperature and wellness checks of employees, the distribution of protective gear and limiting the number of customers who can visit each store.
In July, as coronavirus cases skyrocketed in the Swift Current area, 15 businesses in that region were flagged.
The Swift Current Walmart came up five times, as well as a number of smaller grocery stores.
The Canadian Tire store was named in four exposure alerts. Bumper-to-Bumper, an auto parts retailer, was named in two. Home Hardware was named once.
Canadian Tire has said it continues to follow health and safety guidelines in accordance with local bylaws.
An incomplete picture
At least one Regina business where an employee recently tested positive for the coronavirus is not part of this equation.
An employee of the Tim Hortons outlet on Park Street at Dewdney Avenue tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the chain, and the restaurant closed late last week for cleaning with an uncertain reopening date. As of Monday, the drive-thru was operating.
The health authority did not issue a public service announcement about that case.
In an email statement, it said public health “has not identified any concerns regarding possible COVID exposure to the public,” adding that such exposure alerts are only sent out “when there is a concern that a member of the public may have had exposure to an infectious person in a setting where the individual contacts cannot be identified.”
The Tim Hortons franchise said that any employees who may have been exposed to the virus were asked to self-isolate and that they were being compensated for lost wages through a corporate COVID-19 fund.
Also left off the list, five businesses in the important border city of Lloydminster. The SHA notified the public of these cases after learning about at least some of them from the Alberta Health Service (AHS).
New modelling data from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) on Monday indicated that COVID-19 cases would continue to surge beyond hospital capacity through the fall and into the new year unless there are sustained public health measures to slow down the spread of the virus.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, of Toronto General Hospital, noted how this new research confirms that indoor settings are where the virus is most likely to spread.
“We really have to set ourselves up for success as we enter these fall and winter months ahead,” he told Global News Morning.
“At the end of the day, we have to really remember our fundamental public health principles: physical distancing, hand hygiene, putting on a mask.”
The CMAJ study found that while closing classrooms reduces infection rates within schools, there was much less of an overall impact compared with partial community closures.
— With files from Andrew Russell and Heather Yourex-WestView link »