Sask. doctors warn of more COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths in coming weeks
More Sask. residents hospitalized with COVID-19 in early 2021 than in all of 2020
Saskatchewan doctors are sounding numerous alarm bells about the province's fight against COVID-19, including an expected increase in hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.
"We have not yet seen the peak of this surge," read one slide presented Thursday night during a virtual Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) town hall attended by physicians.
One of those doctors immediately shared the information with CBC News because "we need the public to know how dire the situation is and how much worse it will get in the very near future."
"This was a devastating, heartbreaking meeting," the physician said, adding that presenters were on the verge of tears.
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The slides are typically posted online by the health authority the next day, but sometimes later. Thursday's slides — which the SHA posted on its website late Friday morning — catalogued a host of ongoing concerns, including:
- Low testing numbers in some areas of the province.
- The aftereffects of people travelling in and out of communities on Easter weekend.
- An increase in deaths among people aged 39 and younger.
- "Large" outbreaks at correctional centres and an unnamed mining site.
- Youth gatherings that break current public health rules.
- Inconsistent mask use and distancing in nearly all workplace outbreaks.
- "Vaccine selection anger" at immunization clinics.
More people in Saskatchewan have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the first three months of 2021 than in the 10 months of the pandemic in 2020.
Compared with the first part of the pandemic, when vaccines were not available, "ICU admissions are occurring earlier/faster/longer" and among "disproportionately young, otherwise healthy people," another slide read.
"Increased hospitalizations and deaths will occur [in the] next two to four weeks," according to one slide contained in a presentation by Dr. Johnmark Opondo, a medical health officer with the SHA specializing in communicable diseases.
Intensive-care wards in Regina are already over capacity, with 51 people in ICU across the province as of Tuesday, including 35 people in Regina. The province's total ICU capacity is normally 79.
Citing the presence of more transmissible variants of concern — which officials have already acknowledged account for a high proportion of Saskatchewan's new cases — Opondo noted that "if the Regina situation unfolds province-wide, ICUs will be overwhelmed."
Some triaging of ICU patients is already required, according to another slide.
Opondo's presentation also underscored the need for stronger actions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan.
One slide showed how, one month after restrictions were tightened in Regina, ICU cases continue to remain high.
"We need to strengthen and use every layer of protection," according to Opondo.
Thursday's virtual town hall occurred just hours after the Saskatchewan government announced it would soon allow visitors back into the province's care homes, albeit under certain conditions, such as needing at least 90 per cent of a care home's residents to already be fully vaccinated for three weeks or more.
Ryan Meili, the leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, called the town hall "a cry for help."
One slide shown during the town hall indicated that the vast majority of COVID-19 transmissions in Saskatchewan are occurring in people's homes.
"This is where we're hearing people are letting down their guard," Health Minister Paul Merriman said on Friday.
Merriman was asked about allowing people back into care homes without any requirement for visitors to be fully vaccinated, especially in light of that household transmission finding as well as the government's strong recommendation against any non-essential travel in any part of the province.
More than 80 per cent of care home residents are fully vaccinated, while only 47 of all prioritized health-care workers — a group that includes care home staff — have received their second dose.
"Everybody has to make their own personal risk assessment of what they're doing," Merriman said. Getting a vaccine or going to a medical appointment is acceptable travel-wise, he said.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority latter issued a note to the public echoing Merriman's comments, but with added cautions about other stops.
"Residents – including those in Regina and surrounding communities – may travel to a community outside of their own to attend an immunization clinic, but are advised to not make any other stops or visits aside from the immunization clinic," according to the note.
If a person has been vaccinated twice, "then obviously the risk is lessened," Merriman said, while also acknowledging that vaccinated people may still be able to transmit COVID-19.
Merriman was also asked why the physician's slides have not recently been integrated into the Saskatchewan government's COVID-19 news conferences, such as the one Thursday that announced the care home policy change.
Merriman said while it's extremely important for doctors to be informed about the current COVID-19 situation, "that's a process between the SHA and the doctors."
WATCH | Health Minister Paul Merriman was asked this morning by <a href="https://twitter.com/AHiddyCBC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@AHiddyCBC</a> about the slides, doctors' messaging versus that of Merriman and other officials. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/skpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#skpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/WCt70egW2R">pic.twitter.com/WCt70egW2R</a>—@gqinsk
Merriman noted that when doctors, including Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, flagged the rise of COVID-19 variants of concern in Regina a month ago, the government took action and tightened restrictions in that city.
"I think we're absolutely listening to what the doctors [are saying]," Merriman said. "They're informing my officials and I'm meeting with them on a regular basis to be able to find out what it is we can do to continually adapt."
with files from Adam Hunter