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Alberta and Saskatchewan resist calls for new restrictions as Omicron numbers rise

Click to play video: 'Scott Moe announces Saskatchewan will extend public health orders to end of February' Scott Moe announces Saskatchewan will extend public health orders to end of February
WATCH: Saskatchewan is extending its current public health orders to the end of February, Premier Scott Moe announced at a press conference on Wednesday. Under the current orders, masking is mandatory in all indoor public spaces, including schools – Jan 12, 2022

Throughout the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the pandemic, Saskatchewan has proven to be an outlier.  While Quebec imposed a curfew and Ontario put a stop to indoor dining and working out at gyms, Saskatchewan residents have enjoyed life virtually restriction-free. Students in that province even returned to in-person learning on schedule after the Christmas break.

A day before testing positive for COVID-19 himself this week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he didn’t believe these hard-line restrictions were effective against this highly transmissible variant of COVID-19.

Read more: More people in Saskatchewan died waiting for surgery during COVID-19 than before, data says

“We’ve been watching to see if those restrictions are working to slow the transmission in our nation as well as whether they’re slowing the rate of hospitalization,” the premier said during a press conference on Wednesday. “I don’t know that those are working in any other province across Canada. We’re seeing numbers continue to spread in areas that have restrictions in place that go far beyond gathering limits and the numbers of the Omicron spread seems to continue.”

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After being hit hard by the Delta-fuelled fourth wave, intensive care units in Saskatchewan continue to see patient numbers fall. However, in recent days the number of COVID-19 admissions to hospital units outside the intensive care unit has increased, and epidemiologist Dr. Nazeen Muhajarine expects those numbers will continue to rise.

“I think that this fifth wave in Saskatchewan is about two to three weeks into what I think will be a five- to six-week duration so we are about halfway through,” Muhajarine said from Saskatoon. “We are seeing 125 hospital beds occupied and I think it could easily be doubling and tripling from this point.”

Muhajarine also disagrees with Moe’s statement that gathering limits and other restrictions are ineffective.

“I actually don’t know what empirical data he has to back up that claim.”

Read more: Other data to shed light on Alberta COVID trends in absence of broad PCR tests, Hinshaw says

Moe is not the only provincial leader resisting calls to introduce more public health measures in the face of the Omicron surge. On Thursday, Alberta’s premier warned that with more than 60,000 active cases, the province was experiencing more infections than at any time in the pandemic.

“This is the highest number of active cases that we have identified in Alberta at any time during COVID and we know that these numbers only represent a fraction of the actual spread that’s been happening in the province,” Jason Kenney said.

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Alberta has had to limit access to PCR testing and rapid antigen test kits, available free of charge to Albertans at pharmacies, are currently nearly impossible to find. The province is waiting on shipments that have been delayed with any available kits being distributed to K-12 students at Alberta schools.

Read more: Shipment of rapid COVID-19 tests to Alberta delayed, feds say ‘this is a very competitive market’

“Given the number, the sheer number of cases in the province, we know that will continue to see hospitalizations continue to grow in the coming weeks, particularly for non-ICU beds,” the premier said on Thursday.

Still, no new public health measures were announced. Former Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. James Talbot says he’s concerned that without additional restrictions, the province’s hospitals could soon become overwhelmed.

“It takes about two weeks for things to move from when people were exposed to when they develop illness,” he said. “That would suggest that we’re not even seeing cases that were caused by the gatherings at Christmas or New Year’s yet, so the odds are things are going to get significantly worse.”

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