Saskatchewan

Experts warn Sask. residents, government to take measures as Omicron variant spreads

While COVID-19 case numbers in Saskatchewan have declined in the past few weeks, they're trending upwards in other provinces, as the Omicron coronavirus variant — first identified as a variant of concern less than three weeks ago — spreads across Canada.

Doctors say booster shots, rapid tests, gathering restrictions could help halt transmission

Virologist Alyson Kelvin says more data on the Omicron variant is needed. (VIDO/University of Saskatchewan)

While COVID-19 case numbers in Saskatchewan have declined in the past few weeks, they're trending upwards in other provinces, as the Omicron coronavirus variant — first identified as a variant of concern less than three weeks ago — spreads across Canada.

Federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has warned the Omicron variant caseload could "rapidly escalate" in the coming days, and that it's on its way to becoming the dominant coronavirus strain in Canada.

Saskatchewan medical experts say that could happen here unless residents and the provincial government vigorously safeguard against COVID-19 transmission.

The province has only reported five COVID-19 cases stemming from the Omicron variant so far. In Alberta, there were 60 as of Wednesday.

"I think right now what we're seeing is that cases of Omicron are increasing quite quickly," said Dr. Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan. 

"It does seem that this could be the dominant circulating variant."

Kelvin says it is too early to say how Omicron will affect Saskatchewan, since there are still many unknowns about the variant and how effective vaccines against it.

"What it seems is that we're getting mixed results coming back. There is evidence showing that people who have been vaccinated do have some type of protection against severe disease, so that's really important," said Kelvin.

"But other research studies are showing that there's less binding of antibodies developed in people who are vaccinated toward the Omicron variant."

That could increase after a third vaccine dose, "but really, to get a complete picture ... we're not there yet," Kelvin said.

Dr. Cory Neudorf, an epidemiologist from the University of Saskatchewan, says the health system needs to watch the Omnicron variant closely, 'as does the government, to see where it's hit first and get a better idea of the seriousness of it.' (Submitted by Saskatchewan Health Authority)

Dr. Cory Neudorf, an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and professor at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine, echoes Kelvin's cautiousness about Omicron.

"It's still a little bit unclear as to the differences between the Omicron variant and the Delta variant," he said.

"The health system needs to watch closely, as does the government, to see where it's hit first and get a better idea of the seriousness of it."

Both Kelvin and Neudorf suggest taking precautionary measures, like getting booster shots.

Booster shots and rapid tests

In Saskatchewan, vaccine booster shots are available to anyone 50 or older and those 18 or older living in the far north or in First Nation communities.

Boosters are also available to all health-care workers, and anyone born in 2009 or earlier with an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable.

Kelvin says data and studies suggest that a third dose of an mRNA-based vaccine will increase antibody levels and the ability of antibodies to bind to the Omicron variant. 

"This might give us some type of relief, thinking that a booster might help protect us. But at this time, it hasn't been directly shown that people who will be boosted will be better protected. We need other data to support that."

However, Kelvin says it has been shown that people are better protected against severe COVID-19 illness after getting that third dose.

Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, says the Saskatchewan government needs to be vigilant about the Omicron variant. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine, agrees that those who are eligible should get their booster shots.

Saskatchewan also needs to be vigilant about vaccinating children, he says.

He also says rapid COVID-19 tests need to be used in greater quantities, especially before attending an indoor gathering. 

He also raised concerns about travel right now.

"I would not travel, certainly, outside of the country. I would even be very cautious about traveling within the country across provinces. And I wouldn't travel to Ontario," where Omicron cases are rising quickly, said Muhajarine.

On Wednesday, the federal government changed its travel guidance, once again officially advising against non-essential travel outside the country.

Muhajarine says anyone visiting Saskatchewan from Ontario during the holidays should be fully vaccinated and take a rapid test on the day of arrival.

"We cannot pretend that Omicron is not going to spread here. It will spread … because that's what this particular variant is really good at doing," he said.

He wants to hear from the provincial government about limits on gathering sizes and a plan for making boosters doses a focus of vaccination efforts.

"We need our government to to really tell us what their plan is, how they are going to be pivoting quickly.… We need to put Omicron in place."

Restrictions

While some jurisdictions have recently tightened their pandemic restrictions, the Saskatchewan government has not yet done so. Alberta relaxed its gathering limits as of Wednesday.

In a statement to CBC, the province of Saskatchewan said plans are in development to expand booster doses to all residents 18 and older early in the new year.

The province says it will adjust its COVID-19 variant plan "based on best available information and our previous experiences managing the impact of COVID."

In lieu of government restrictions, Kelvin says Saskatchewan residents should remember what worked to stop COVID-19 transmission in the past, and do the same this holiday season. 

She suggests limiting the number of people at gatherings and moving them outdoors when possible. If indoors, mask use and good ventilation are important, she said.

"Every time somebody is infected, the virus then replicates inside of them, and that gives the virus an opportunity to gain new mutations and possibly create a new variant," said Kelvin.

"We need to be keeping this in mind because we do want to drive down those transmission events … so we can finally get out of this pandemic."

Out-of-province transfers

Controlling the spread of Omicron cases is essential to ensuring Saskatchewan's health-care system isn't overwhelmed, said Neudorf.

While the last out-of-province COVID-19 patient returned home Tuesday, he says Saskatchewan may have to resort to that again if we're not careful about Omicron. 

"I would like to think that as more becomes known and we let the public know and give government a chance to react earlier, we should be able to get on top of this wave quicker so we don't get to that point," Neudorf said. 

A patient from Saskatchewan is transferred from an air ambulance to a waiting Peel Region ambulance at Pearson airport in Toronto on Oct. 27. Experts warn that if Saskatchewan isn't vigilant about curbing Omicron transmission, it may have to send COVID-19 patients out of province for care again. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But he says it's troubling that Saskatchewan's health-care system has not recovered from the fourth wave yet.

"We still have quite a large number of people in ICU and in hospital. So introducing another wave right now, even if it's smaller than the previous one, would put us into overcapacity problems," he said.

"It is entirely possible … that the system could become overloaded, which is why we need to take this seriously right now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. She holds a master of journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

With files from Saskatoon Morning

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