Time to 'tighten up again' after Sask.'s deadliest month of COVID-19 pandemic: epidemiologist

The province said 104 people died in December and 49 people have died so far in January due to COVID-19-related complications.

104 people in Sask. died in December, 49 have died so far in January due to COVID-19 complications

As of Tuesday, there had been 204 deaths in Saskatchewan related to COVID-19. That includes 153 deaths since the start of December. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

An epidemiologist is raising concerns about the province's rapid rise in deaths from COVID-19, after Saskatchewan saw its deadliest month of the pandemic so far. 

In December, 104 people died from COVID-19-related complications. Because people hear about a few deaths each day, they may be surprised by that total, said Nazeem Muhajarine.

"The number of deaths mounting every day — four, five, six deaths every day — it really adds up," said Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Since Dec. 1, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the province has increased fourfold. By the end of the month, there were 155 deaths, up from 51 as of Dec. 1.

As of Tuesday, there had been 204 deaths in Saskatchewan related to COVID-19. 

Muhajarine said some — but not all — of the deaths can be attributed to outbreaks at long-term care homes, including those at Parkside Extendicare in Regina or the Luther Special Care Home in Saskatoon.

"The deaths are occurring not only among older adults in congregated care situations, but also among young people as well.…Those who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s have also lost their lives to COVID," he said, adding many of the deaths may be related to community transmission.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine, says people need to consider the fact that COVID-19 can be deadly as they make decisions about their behaviour. (Kristen McEwen/University of Saskatchewan)

The start of vaccination is a good sign, Muhajarine said, but there is a long way to go. 

"My fear is that we will lose many lives, as we have been in the past four to six weeks, before we get to a point where we can sort of say … we have got the vaccine to as many people as we need to," he said.

It's also important to consider the new variants of COVID-19, including the one that has appeared in the United Kingdom and in some places in Canada, he said.

"It is among us," said Muhajarine. "And my fear is that this new variant will drive the case numbers even higher and meanwhile, there will also be many more deaths."

Opposition continues call for Parkside inquiry

The official Opposition is continuing its calls for an inquiry into the Parkside Extendicare outbreak. As of Saturday, 41 residents in the Regina care home had died from COVID-19.

NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said she is also concerned about an outbreak at Lakeview Pioneer Lodge in Wakaw. As of Monday, five residents at the care home in the town, about 85 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, had died. Nearly all of the 44 residents were infected.

"These deaths that we've seen predominantly in long-term care were both predictable and preventable," Mowat said. "And it's incredibly sad for all the folks who have been impacted."

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, expressed his condolences to the families of those who have died. 

"Since Jan.1, 49 Saskatchewan residents have passed away, and this number is far too high," Shahab said at a Tuesday news conference. "And it is a direct result of our high community transmission rates. And that is why we must do all we can to minimize COVID transmission in our communities while the vaccination program picks up."

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said community transmission needs to be kept low to prevent deaths. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

The province announced Tuesday it will extend the current public health orders for the next two weeks, followed by a review. The orders limit indoor gatherings in households, and restrict capacity in stores, restaurants and malls. 

Muhajarine said he would have liked to see more restrictions, including requiring restaurants to close to indoor dining — with losses offset by government support — and allowing only essential businesses to open, similar to the restrictions seen in March and April, during the start of the pandemic.

"Now is the time to really tighten up again … to be disciplined about not getting together with anybody outside of your home," Muhajarine said. "And once we get to that … 50 new cases [per day number], then we can begin to loosen up a little bit."

The deaths the province has seen in recent weeks are something people should keep in mind as they make their daily choices, he said.

It's also key to remember these aren't simply numbers.

"These are actually people we love.… This is our grandfather, grandmother, brother, sister ... our neighbour, our friend. These are people who we will not see again," he said.

"And we could have prevented it. We could have prevented it if we had done some things right."

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