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‘Gather safely’: No COVID-19 gathering restrictions for Sask. ahead of holidays despite modelling

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WATCH: Saskatchewan’s provincial COVID response team has released troubling projections ahead of the Christmas holidays, but the province is not reintroducing restrictions just yet – Dec 21, 2021

The number of COVID-19 Omicron variant cases is starting to climb in Saskatchewan, but officials say it’s not enough to re-establish gathering measures as residents plan to meet up during the holiday season.

Government and health representatives provided more information on the province’s COVID-19 situation on Tuesday, which includes 67 new COVID-19 cases and one new death of a COVID-19-positive patient.

Active cases in Saskatchewan have also decreased to 556.

Marlo Pritchard, president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said while COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have declined, the percentage of the Omicron variant among those positive cases is on the rise.

Read more: COVID-19 rules cause delays at Canadian airports amid Omicron holiday travel

As of Monday, 65 Omicron cases have been identified in Saskatchewan. No hospitalizations have been reported in these cases so far.

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“The rates of this highly transmissible virus is expected to grow similar to other jurisdictions in Canada and the rest of the world,” Pritchard stated during Tuesday’s update.

Saskatchewan’s Omicron cases have been traced back to international travel, interprovincial travel and contact within households, according to chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.

He expects Omicron will become the predominant strain in Saskatchewan with community transmission anticipated in the next weeks.

“Omicron is definitely more transmissible, but what impact will it have compared to Delta on our population in terms of hospitalizations?” said Shahab. “We need to track that closely.”

Despite this information, and with other provinces choosing to tighten restrictions ahead of the holiday festivities, the Saskatchewan government has not announced any new public health measures.

Read more: Two COVID-19 vaccines doses isn’t fully vaccinated anymore, scientist says

Shahab said it’s “really important” to reduce contacts by around 50 per cent and to minimize non-essential travel as much as possible in order to keep case numbers low.

When asked if he is concerned about the lack of gathering restrictions, the doctor said it has been discussed extensively within the government.

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He called it “a balancing act.”

“On one hand, our case numbers are the second-lowest in Canada and we worked hard to reach that, plus we don’t have widespread Omicron transmission right now,” he said.

“At this point, it’s felt that it’s fine to gather safely, but keep your groups small and consistent.”

Read more: Saskatchewan residents line up for hours to get COVID-19 booster before the holidays

Shahab said he understands some people might struggle with what the right number is for their year-end gatherings.

He pointed to Nova Scotia’s “twenty is plenty” slogan as a reasonable number, but suggested that it’s fine if immediate households or two to three consistent households get together.

“I think it’s the recommendation for now, but we will continue to monitor closely,” Shahab said. “I think we need to be very cautious with large gatherings.”

Modelling indicates case surge without restrictions

During Tuesday’s media briefing, Shahab presented a handful of COVID-19 modelling slides regarding scenarios assuming the Omicron variant is much more transmissible than the Delta variant.

The slides describe what will happen if Omicron-driven cases increase rapidly without stronger public health interventions regarding provincial case numbers and hospitalizations.

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Provincial modelling suggests the Omicron variant could boost daily COVID-19 numbers to more than 300 cases per day by mid-January with the health measures that are currently in place.

Read more: Don’t travel internationally, keep gatherings small during holidays, Saskatchewan epidemiologist says

Shahab said stronger interventions, including gathering limits, with the Omicron variant could lower that number below 50 cases per day.

“Early reports are suggesting that in the U.K., for example, they are seeing hospitalizations and deaths with Omicron, but the rate seems to be a bit lower than Delta,” Shahab noted.

“As soon as we start seeing widespread community transmission of Omicron, I think we’ll have to start thinking of additional measures — either voluntarily or through public health measures — to help bend the curve down.”

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Source: Government of Saskatchewan
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Source: Government of Saskatchewan
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Source: Government of Saskatchewan

Modelling also shows Omicron could push hospitalizations over 200 by mid-January without additional measures. The difference if stronger interventions were in place is under 50 hospitalizations.

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It’s also suggested that the province’s hospitals could reach maximum intensive care unit capacity “quickly” without more measures.

Modelling indicates ICUs could see nearly 70 admissions. Saskatchewan began out-of-province patient transfers when it reached more than 80 ICU admissions in the fall.

“Even though our ICU, hospitalizations and case counts have gone down, it takes a long time for people to recover fully and get discharged. So there’s a lag in how quickly discharges are happening,” added the chief medical health officer.

Read more: Canadian small businesses struggle again amid COVID-19 capacity limits, CFIB says

Derek Miller, the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s chief of emergency operations, said they are working to ensure surge plans are ready so they can react to demand in the future.

“We’ve taken steps to assess different scenarios that could play out in terms of increased demand within our hospitals and we’re engaging with our local teams within our facilities,” Miller said.

The government mentioned in its slides that these are “very preliminary model scenarios with a lot of uncertainty due to limited evidence, particularly regarding severity and hospitalization risk with Omicron.”

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