'Hit the brakes:' Saskatchewan has highest COVID-19 active case rate

REGINA — The head of the Saskatchewan Health Authority says the province's health-care system is at its most fragile point yet during the pandemic as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.

"With all the other pressures the system is experiencing ... and now with immunization and helping to manage outbreaks, we're pushing ourselves to the absolute limit," CEO Scott Livingstone said during a briefing.

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The Public Health Agency of Canada says the province has the country's highest rate of active cases per 100,000 people at 319. Another 312 infections were reported Thursday.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, chief medical health officer, said he will recommend the government introduce stricter public health measures if he keeps seeing 300 or more new infections daily,

Premier Scott Moe and Shahab decided earlier this week to wait another 14 days to see if existing public health orders bring down a spike in cases, which the pair attributed to holiday gatherings.

A virus expert cautioned against the idea that the current spread is a reflection of Christmas.

"There is always a danger in looking at or viewing it from that perspective because there's maybe the tendency to think that, 'OK, in a few weeks time things will turn around," Dr. Jason Kindrachuk said from Saskatoon.

"Once the transmission chains start we have to try and slow those down."

Current measures forbid guests in private homes, but people can still gather outdoors in groups of 10, go shopping and visit restaurants — although businesses must restrict their capacity. Same with personal services, such as hair salons.

Bingo halls and casinos are the only activities shut down and team sports are banned, except for kids in small practice groups.

"If we want our numbers to go down, we need to actually hit the brakes," said Kyle Anderson, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

"We need to either compel people or convince people that they need to be more responsible in what they're doing."

Moe, citing concern over job losses and people's well-being, has rejected returning the province to a full economic shutdown.

"We all know the right things to do even if we aren't forced to do it. And the fact that Saskatchewan has the worst numbers means we are following the rules the least," said Anderson.

As of Thursday, 206 people were in hospital with COVID-19 — the most to date — and 34 of them were receiving intensive care. For weeks, health officials have warned about the strain the pandemic's second wave has been having on contact tracing and ICUs.

The health authority said normally the province has 75 intensive care beds and has created 16 more, which are used depending on demand. Of the 91 available beds, 82 were full Thursday, with 34 of the patients sick with COVID-19.

Anderson said he expects to see more hospitalizations because people who are in those beds now became infected weeks ago, and there's a lag time before more recent cases result in hospital admissions.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, also a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in community health and epidemiology, said circumstances change quickly in a pandemic, and the province's active case rate could be lower by the weekend.

But he doesn't believe Saskatchewan would fall far behind that many other provinces. He suggested what's more important is to watch the trajectory of new infections, which has formed a "steep slope."

"There is a correlation, connection between more cases, more hospital beds occupied, also more ICU care needed and more deaths.

"It's more, more, more."

He said another concerning trend is how many people are dying each day, including those who weren't living in long-term care homes or who were younger than 50.

Since the start of January, health officials have reported 51 deaths.

"That worries me," said Muhajarine.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021

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