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‘Short-sighted and simplistic’: Sask. professor calls for holistic approach to reopen plan

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WATCH: As Saskatchewan lays out its steps to a post pandemic world, some are taking it as a sign of hope. Others question the province's roadmap, saying the threat of COVID-19 is still too high – May 5, 2021

In a three-step approach, the Saskatchewan government is using first-dose vaccination benchmarks to gradually lift restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, a University of Saskatchewan biomedical sciences assistant professor is calling the plan “short-sighted” and “simplistic.”

“It really doesn’t look at the nitty-gritty details of what’s happening right now in certain locales or with certain variants,” Kyle Anderson told Global News.

“Right now, it’s really just looking at one thing (first-dose vaccinations), which isn’t even the best thing to look at. We should look at second vaccination.”

Read more: Saskatchewan lays out ‘roadmap’ in reopening from pandemic

Anderson estimates that only three or four per cent of Saskatchewan people will be fully vaccinated by the time the reopening plans come to fruition. In contrast, he said at least half of the population in the United Kingdom and Israel — two countries that are also in the process of reopening — have received their second dose.

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“The vaccine doesn’t work for everyone after the first dose, and especially when it comes to variants,” Anderson said.

“For us to give this false hope of — once we hit 70 per cent everything is going to be fine — it’s really naive of us.”

According to Saskatchewan Health Authority data, two-thirds of the province’s zones are in the red, which means it is highly likely that COVID-19 transmission is not controlled in those areas.

As of Tuesday, 75 COVID-19 patients were in Regina hospitals. Of those, 23 were in the ICU. Saskatoon had 68 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Fourteen of those were in the ICU.

Anderson said it appears Regina’s hospitalizations and ICU admissions are decreasing, while Saskatoon’s are trending up. He said there needs to be a focus on controlling the third wave provincewide and emphasized the reopen plan shouldn’t be steps ahead of the current situation.

“We just shouldn’t have a plan that goes three steps ahead until we’ve even reached the first step,” he said.

“Our plan should be continually something that we change and adjust and learn from other jurisdictions.”

Read more: Demand for some vaccines in Saskatchewan high, other clinics see low turnout

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Anderson said the provincial government needs to take a “holistic” approach to its reopening plan, which would look at “not just our COVID numbers, but the entire situation around us.”

In a statement, health critic Vicki Mowat said, “It’s concerning that it appears the only metric being used is vaccination numbers. Vaccination numbers are important, but they do not tell the whole story.”

“With Alberta imposing further restrictions today, we need to keep a close eye on case counts, test positivity, hospitalizations and other public health indicators to guide our steps forward.”

Premier Scott Moe told reporters that chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and other health officials are tracking the COVID situation outside of vaccinations, including hospitalization numbers. If the pressure increases on acute care, the reopening process could be paused.

However, Moe stands behind the vaccination benchmarks.

“As our vaccination levels continue to increase, the expectation would be that our severe outcomes from COVID continue to decrease in that period of time,” Moe said.

Welcome news for chambers of commerce

As businesses continue to struggle to stay afloat amid COVID-19 restrictions that limit capacity and services, the reopening plan acts as a shining light at the end of a dark tunnel.

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“We’re thrilled,” said Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan.

“We’re pleased that not only has this plan has been released, but we also have a vision for the summer.”

In step one of the reopening plan, which could happen as quickly as the end of May, restaurants and bars can open with up to six people at a table. Group fitness activities can also resume. By step two, on track to roll out late June, capacity will increase in retail stores. The measured rollout will help businesses plan for a smooth reopening, according to McLellan.

“Businesses are not like a light switch. You can’t turn them on and off. They have to schedule staff, they have to do the marketing,” McLellan said.

“This plan gives us, if you will, a dimmer switch. It is a staged process to reopen.”

Click to play video: 'Elderly Saskatchewan residents to receive 2nd COVID-19 vaccine dose sooner than 16 weeks' Elderly Saskatchewan residents to receive 2nd COVID-19 vaccine dose sooner than 16 weeks
Elderly Saskatchewan residents to receive 2nd COVID-19 vaccine dose sooner than 16 weeks – May 4, 2021

John Hopkins, CEO of Regina and District Chamber of Commerce, is pleased with the gradual approach. He said it gives business owners the chance to monitor where the reopen stages are at.

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“It’s really about people getting vaccinated and we will be able to track and see where we are and be able to say, ‘OK, by this date, I should be able to increase my seating capacity,’ or whatever the case,” Hopkins said.

“The other side of the coin is all of this is up to businesses, it’s up to residents, and it’s up to us to actually meet those targets.”

Not all businesses will bounce back as things reopen, according to Hopkins. Success will vary from sector to sector, with the hospitality and accommodations sector potentially taking the longest to recover, he said.

“It’s not like we’re going to hit a certain date and, bang, the hotels are going to be full. That’s not going to happen,” he said.

“The good thing about this is that it’s not a recession. It’s not a depression. Once we get on the other side of the virus, it should happen fairly quickly.”

Businesses will have to continue to adapt, even as things move back to normal, according to McLellan.

He said he’s heard from some restaurants that had a better sales year during the pandemic than in previous years, which they credit to adaptations and “finding their niche.”

However, McLellan said there will be businesses that can’t overcome the damage done by COVID-19 and some will struggle with the impact in the months and year ahead.

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“One of the challenges is financial that they won’t be able to get themselves out of the hole that COVID got them into,” McLellan said.

“There’s also the wear and tear on the business and the way business has changed.”

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