As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to break record after record in Saskatchewan, the province is enacting more aggressive measures to control the spread of the virus.
Starting Monday, the province is expanding its mask mandate, recommending in-class learning for some high schools, and implementing a curfew on bars and nightclubs.
Anyone who lives in a community of 5,000 people or more will have to wear a mask in all indoor public places. This will be in effect for 28 days similar to the order placed on Regina, Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
The mask mandate also applies to communities surrounding the province’s three largest cities, even if their population is less than 5,000.
Additionally, the province is placing a curfew on alcohol sales and enforcing an early last call.
All restaurants, bars, taverns and nightclubs in the province will have to stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m., and consumption must end by 11 p.m., says the Ministry of Health. There are exceptions for private events and outdoor spaces. There is also a ban on hookah and waterpipe services.
As for schools, it’s recommended all divisions move to Level 3 in their back-to-school plans for high schools with 600 students or more.
Under the Safe Schools Plan, Level 3 is to reduce in-class learning to prevent the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, all aerobic group fitness activities like spin classes are limited to a maximum of eight participants, and they must be separated by three metres.
The new measures come days after hundreds of Saskatchewan doctors penned a letter to the government calling for more action to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
While Health Minister Paul Merriman commended the fortitude of health care workers, the government stopped short on delivering their demands that asked for a province-wide mask mandate, and closing bars and nightclubs.
“We need to give this a good solid try before we move to more restrictive measures,” chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said.
This is a walk-back on comments Shahab made in mid-October when the government was dissolved. He stated if new cases reached 100 a day for several days, certain sectors would have to close in order to prevent the health-care system from overburdening.
Saskatchewan is now averaging 123 new COVID-19 cases a day, with a six per cent test-positivity rate said Shahab. Other than hookah/shisha services, all other businesses are allowed to remain open.
In recent days, there have been increased outbreaks across the province including two long-term care facilities, one seniors’ residence and one personal care home.
This includes Indian Head, where the population is less than 5,000, and where several outbreaks have been declared. The community will not have a masking order despite Shahab stating “transmission is in every activity, even when guidelines are being followed.”
The sharp increase in cases has led to hospital facilities and health-care personnel becoming stretched.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat the situation. It’s not great. This threat is very real,” Minister of Health Paul Merriman said.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is pleading with the public to follow health orders to prevent the healthcare system from further strain.
The SHA is reactivating its emergency plan, not used since the spring, to deal with the imminent hospitalizations and deaths.
“When you see an uptick in hospitalizations, you see an uptick in mortality and death. You don’t need a forecast for that. That’s what we know about the virus today,” SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said.
As of Friday, there are 54 people in hospital, 15 of whom are in the ICU, an all-time high for the province. In Saskatoon, ICU wards were recently expanded.
As a result, “immense pressure” is on acute care systems across the province, and the public health workers are feeling the burden mentally and physically.
Contact tracers face verbal abuse weekly from members of the public, said chief medical officer Dr. Susan Shaw, and healthcare workers are seeing more people in hospital suffering from the virus.
“In the days ahead, we will have to tell more families their loved ones aren’t going to make it,” Shaw said.
“When people come to the hospital they often beg us to do everything you can. Now we’re begging in return. Do everything you can. Limit your bubble as small as possible, wash your hands regularly. Comply with the public health orders, and please put on a mask whenever you’re in a public indoor space,” Shaw said.
“Putting on a mask is not a political statement. It’s a scientific one. It’s a statement of love.”