With Saskatoon’s intensive care units now over capacity, Saskatchewan is “losing the battle” against the novel coronavirus, says a growing group of more than 350 doctors who are asking the province to do more to curb the rising caseload.
When the open letter to Premier Scott Moe, Health Minister Paul Merriman and chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab was first made public Tuesday evening, it had 260 signatures. Throughout Wednesday, physicians have continued to add their names.
In the letter, the doctors point to a 700 per cent rise in active COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan over the past month and a 517 per cent increase in hospitalizations. Intensive care units in Saskatoon are at 130 per cent capacity and diverting patients, they say.
“It is becoming increasingly clear to us, physicians from across Saskatchewan, that we are losing the battle,” states the letter, adding, “If more is not done to change our course, we are confident that winter will bring overflowing hospitals, cancelled surgeries, overwhelmed health-care providers and needless deaths.”
“We’ve been watching what’s happening in our province and to the provinces on either side of us with sort of a sense of growing concern and fear,” Dr. Carla Holinaty, one of the signees, told Global News.
Manitoba and Alberta are experiencing similar spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Holinaty said the doctors are leaving it to the province’s political leaders, who can use government data on COVID-19 transmissions and current economic forecasts, to determine an effective solution that is specific to Saskatchewan.
But, she said the change must happen at once.
“We don’t want to be in a situation like New York or like Italy; that’s the worst-case scenario. What we’re asking for is action now so that we never have to consider being at that place,” she said, speaking via Zoom.
The doctors acknowledge the inconvenience of interventions, such as wearing masks, distancing, isolating and quarantining. They also note that escalating restrictions harm local businesses.
Holinaty said provincial leaders must balance financial consequences against the public health concerns, but warned a huge loss of life also affects the economy.
“We think that we need to take that immediate action now, recognizing that it has mental health and economic impacts to prevent it from being worse later,” Holinaty said.
“We know that doing more will be difficult for Saskatchewan people,” states the letter. “However, the lives of our friends and neighbours are on the line.”
Recognizing that “both action and inaction will be criticized” in the letter, the doctors say they’re looking to the newly re-elected government “to act with sufficient force to reverse the rising daily case counts.”
They ask for details on how and when restrictions could escalate.
Models of successful intervention have been employed in Canada, they say, pointing to the Maritimes, and around the world in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and South Korea.
Holinaty said the government also needs to be clearer about restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and that current and past guidelines were too vague.
“Instead of mask mandates that only cover certain parts of the province, which can be quite confusing to people, maybe we need to do something more concrete and say now is the time that we’re going to say province-wide masking is mandatory.”
She suggested the government should publish a list of the five types of locations where most people are exposed to the virus, saying that would be more effective than adding to an ongoing chronicle of daily potential exposures.
“Is it really that it’s all been bars and nightclubs? Or is it other things?” she said.
“Because without that information and having it be very clear for people, it’s hard for them to know where they need to dedicate their efforts.”
More effective communication and uniform regulations, she said, would help people more efficiently stay safe and avoid “COVID fatigue,” where people grow weary of the regulations designed to keep them safe.
Global News has reached out to the province for comment on the open letter and whether to expect more intervention in Saskatchewan.
In an email statement, the health minister thanked the doctors for “their passion and engagement,” agreeing that “a solid foundation of science and expert medical opinion is central to an effective response to COVID-19.”
That’s why the “government has been acting upon the advice and guidance of our top doctor,” Merriman said in the statement.
“Dr. Shahab’s advice and the adherence of Saskatchewan people to that advice has been crucial as we work to protect our families and communities while keeping our economy strong throughout the pandemic.”
– With files from Global’s Nathaniel Dove