High COVID-19 demand in some Saskatchewan hospitals still delaying some health care

The health authority said surgeries are also increasing across the province, although rural areas are experiencing a quicker return compared with Regina and Saskatoon. Getty Images

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says it has resumed nearly half the health-care services that were cut during the province’s fourth wave of COVID-19.

It says high hospitalization rates in urban areas are preventing the remaining services from returning.

“We’re not out of the woods yet in terms of our fourth wave,” Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, said Tuesday.

“It will take a longer duration for our hospitalization numbers to go down.”

As of this week, 193 of the 395 services cut since Sept. 1 have resumed, with another 68 services partially back.

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The services include pediatric programming, home care, medical imaging and therapies. Additionally, the province said it is aiming to bring back its organ donation program by next week.

The health authority said surgeries are also increasing across the province, although rural areas are experiencing a quicker return compared with Regina and Saskatoon.

Derek Miller, the authority’s emergency operations centre chief, said that’s because of higher demand for COVID-19 care in the cities.

“We really need to see those come down with the rest of it in order to start moving us toward normal,” Miller said.

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Modelling has suggested that Saskatchewan’s health-care care system won’t return to sustainable levels until mid-January.

The province faced one of the harshest fourth waves in the country after the Saskatchewan Party government lifted COVID-19 measures before the summer and, by the government’s own account, was slow to implement a mask mandate and vaccine passport system when cases started rising.

Levels in intensive care units have been inching closer to the province’s baseline capacity, with 80 patients currently in ICUs. But Miller cautioned that unvaccinated populations can still drive clusters of infections.

“The health system is dependent on the overall COVID transmission and case volumes and what does that mean for hospitalizations, in particular ICUs,” Miller said.

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“We have a desire, and everyone wants to see the case numbers continue to downtrend and the associated hospitals to do the same, which would allow us to resume services and get back to a sense of normal.”

Shahab said an uptake in COVID-19 vaccinations has resulted in the reduction of cases and hospitalizations.

Government data shows that since the province implemented its vaccine passport system in October, about 200,000 more shots have been administered.

“We are not seeing for the most part large transmissions … that’s so important, because we can do so much now with these tools,” Shahab said.

“It is a much safer situation with many things remaining open.”

The province’s mask mandate is set to expire at the end of the month, although Premier Scott Moe has hinted the public health order will be extended.

Shahab said he would like people to continue wearing masks well into the spring. He also recommends people require vaccine passports in private settings, where it’s not mandated by the government.

Saskatchewan continues to mainly rely on vaccinations to fend off a fifth wave, which modelling suggests could be the province’s worst due to a plateauing of high hospitalization rates.

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On Tuesday morning, the first day of bookings for Pfizer-BioNTech’s pediatric COVID-19 shot in Saskatchewan, nearly 10,000 appointments were made online, briefly crashing the health authority’s vaccine booking system.

About 700 people have also been inoculated with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine since it arrived in the province last week, which the health authority said meets its expectations.

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