'We are not there:' Sask. doctors say COVID-19 restrictions must remain through the holidays

Premier Scott Moe recently raised the possibility of lifting some of the restrictions on gatherings during the holiday season, if it is safe to do so. But Saskatchewan doctors are ringing alarm bells — not Christmas bells — about the rising case numbers.

Doctors say more education, greater clarity needed from province on pandemic messaging

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has suggested restrictions in place to fight COVID-19 might be lifted around the holidays. But a town hall of doctors heard that might not be realistic. (Andrea Delbo/Shutterstock)

Premier Scott Moe recently raised the possibility of lifting some of the restrictions on gatherings during the holiday season, if it is safe to do so. 

But some Saskatchewan doctors are ringing alarm bells — not Christmas bells — about the rising case numbers. 

At a physician town hall last week, Dr. Julie Kryzanowski, senior medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said the current trajectory puts Saskatchewan on track to have 14,000 cases of COVID-19 by mid-December.

As of Tuesday, there have been 8,745 cases to date, with 3,819 considered active.

Kryzanowski also worries about the possibility of under-counting active cases at this stage in the pandemic. 

"When we're in exponential growth, we know active cases are just the tip of the iceberg, and we know there's a huge iceberg under the water that represents the undiagnosed cases," she said.

"That's also growing exponentially, and we have momentum behind the growth in cases that's increasingly difficult to turn around." 

According to models presented by senior medical information officer Dr. Jenny Basran, COVID-19 patients may soon account for half of all available hospital beds — and that situation is projected to last well into the spring. 

By January, there may not be enough ventilators in Saskatchewan's ICUs for all the patients who will need them, the models suggest. 

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Skip this Christmas so family is here next year: doctor

Kyle Anderson, an assistant professor in the college of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, says Moe's comments about lifting restrictions do not reflect the reality of where the pandemic is headed. He worries that type of thinking will lead to a false sense of security. 

"People will think things are going to be turning around, because the premier must have the most up-to-date information, and he would be guiding us with the best medically sound advice," said Anderson. "In this case, there's no way you could claim that the best sound medical advice would allow us to start loosening things up. We are not there."

Anderson hopes residents will remember that a great deal of community transmission is driven by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people. In many cases, these people have not even gone to get a COVID test, because they don't feel ill. 

"These are the people who are spreading it to other people," Anderson said. "They're going to play hockey. They're going to a restaurant. They're going for that one-on-one dinner with a friend. They're getting in close contact, unmasked, because they think they're safe."

If more people are allowed to gather for the holidays, more people will unknowingly spread the virus to their families and loved ones at a time when the hospital system is already overloaded. 

"The only way we can try to make sure we don't worsen the situation at Christmas is to say, just like we told the kids at Halloween, we're skipping it this year," said Anderson. "We can skip these holidays. Having someone here next Christmas is more important than going to see them this Christmas." 

Looking for loopholes

As case numbers in the province continue to rise despite the new public health measures, doctors are advocating for more public education and greater clarity about why certain things are allowed and others forbidden. 

At the town hall meeting, Moose Jaw family doctor Brandon Thorpe said the uncertainty is leading some people to look for loopholes.

"I'm hearing all sorts of devious ways of how people are getting by the new rules," he said.

"The joke is that 'I'm going to go and have a funeral for my turkey on Christmas day with 30 people in a restaurant.' So … I just feel that the presentations Mr. Moe and [Chief Medical Health Officer] Dr. [Saqib] Shahab are doing are not sufficient. They're too vague, and they don't give enough education." 

For the government to promote an effective public health message at this point in time, everyone must present a clear and united front, Anderson says.

"Education is one of the biggest things we can do to get us out of this mess, and I think the government is sort of dropping the ball on that," he said.

"They're not consistently getting the messaging out about what we need to do to actually succeed at this pandemic. They're saying, 'Well, maybe if you could, it would be nice if some people did this.' That's really not the messaging people need right now." 


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