Saskatchewan

Drop in testing in Sask. means decreasing COVID case numbers not completely accurate: expert

Saskatchewan’s dropping number of known active COVID-19 cases is one of the reasons Premier Scott Moe is not budging to impose further restrictions, but a lack of testing in the province makes Moe’s claims only “partially accurate,” according to one epidemiologist.

Nazeem Muhajarine says more cases would be reported if testing was ramped up

Saskatchewan's testing numbers so far this week are the lowest the province has seen since mid-August. (Submitted by Saskatchewan Health Authority)

Saskatchewan's dropping number of known active COVID-19 cases is one of the reasons Premier Scott Moe is not budging to impose further restrictions, but a lack of testing in the province makes Moe's claims only "partially accurate," according to one epidemiologist.

New COVID-19 diagnoses in Saskatchewan are at the lowest level since late August. On Tuesday, the provincial health ministry's COVID-19 dashboard reported 126 new cases. That was 44 fewer — or about 26 per cent — than the day before. Mid-August was the last time Saskatchewan saw daily case numbers that low.

However, the number of people getting tested is also down. Testing numbers so far this week are also at their lowest since mid-August, which means we may not be getting an accurate picture of COVID in the province, according to Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. 

For weeks, doctors have been calling on Moe to impose more health measures. In a letter dated Oct. 21, medical health officers once again pleaded with the provincial government to implement gathering limits and other recommendations to combat COVID-19.

Moe told reporters on Monday after his state of the province address that gathering limits were a "stop-gap measure" that will not help the province "find our way through COVID in the longer term."

Moe said the province's COVID-19 trajectory "is improving greatly," and that the indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccination policy are working. 

"If you look at where the numbers are today … those measures are proving to be ultimately effective," he said.

On Tuesday, 1,496 people got tested for COVID and 1,681 tests were administered the day before. Saskatchewan hasn't seen numbers that low since mid-August. 

Muhajarine said that if testing was ramped up, Saskatchewan would be diagnosing more COVID cases and that ideally, the province should be administering 4,000 to 5,000 tests per day. 

While Muhajarine acknowledged two days does not constitute a trend, he said the low testing numbers are "concerning."

"It's a red flag to actually have only about 1,700 tests done," he said. 

"If we continue to test below 2,000 for the rest of this week and we are detecting cases that are continuing to trend down for the rest of this week, I would say that is an artifact of the number of tests that we are doing."

Nazeem Muhajarine is an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

So far this month, the weekly testing average hasn't topped 4,000 tests. 

Rapid antigen COVID-19 self-test kits are starting to be available to Saskatchewan residents, but positive results from those tests aren't counted until a person gets the more sensitive PCR test. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is currently only testing people experiencing COVID symptoms, which Muhajarine said can contribute to more positive cases going undetected. 

"We are not testing people who might likely be positive," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yasmine Ghania is a reporter with CBC News, currently based in Vancouver. Previously she worked in Saskatchewan where, among other things, she uncovered sexual abuse allegations at a private Christian school and deep problems within a police force. You can reach her confidentially by email: yasmine.ghania@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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