Masking, other measures could save Sask. from winter lockdown

Dr. Cory Neudorf suggests adding a few extra layers of protection we know work — like indoor masking requirements, increasing surge capacity for testing and tracing and ensuring schools return safely — could go a long way to protecting Saskatchewan from COVID-19 this fall.

We should do the things we know are effective: Dr. Cory Neudorf

Prof. Cory Neudorf is an epidemiologist with the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine. (Submitted by Saskatchewan Health Authority)

This Opinion piece was written by Cory Neudorf, an interim Senior Medical Health Officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology.

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Like fall on the Prairies, the fourth wave of COVID has arrived too soon, largely due to prematurely lifting all public health measures in July. 

For a government that has put all of its hopes on vaccines, it seems to be doing everything it can to remove incentives for its citizens. 

First, it set a target of 70 per cent of the adults getting their first dose to remove all restrictions — lower than even optimistic projections suggested would be needed to start lifting restrictions — then it proceeded to remove them when they were "close enough," thinking that by simply encouraging people to do the right thing momentum would continue. 

Predictably, the public got the message that COVID was no longer a threat. 

Vaccine uptake stalled and calls to voluntarily keep up with other safety measures went unheeded by too many. 

This scenario, coupled with the arrival of the more transmissible delta variant, produced predictive models from multiple sources warning that a fourth wave would likely start in late summer and overwhelm the health system by early fall unless proactive measures were taken to add layers of protection. 

No need for the full "winter coat" of lockdowns, but simply adding a few layers that we have learned are effective: wearing masks in indoor public places, retaining surge capacity for testing and contact tracing programs, ensuring schools had a cautious reopening strategy and that any venues that attract large crowds or care for our most vulnerable required vaccine certificates or proof of negative tests for entry.

Not easy, but acceptable compared to the alternatives.

For these layers of protection to work they require the vast majority of people to follow them, which requires strong leadership, unambiguous messaging and the backing of policy. 

The provinces' Medical Health Officers have whole communities as their patients. Their job is to assess threats and give science-based advice on control measures that minimize unintended consequences, and they prescribed this layered approach on August 26. 

Scientific experts, health system leaders and many mayors and business owners all agreed that this approach was necessary. However, like those who deny that summer is coming to an end, Premier Moe has rejected these extra layers of protection leaving the people of Saskatchewan out in the cold. 

Even after record setting daily case rates, with ER visits, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths climbing and health care workers burning out, the most recent announcements on Sept 10 were the equivalent to changing to a thicker T-shirt despite an early frost — a step in the right direction, but not enough to make much of a difference.

WATCH | Sask. Premier Scott Moe announces mandatory isolation orders, but no other restrictions

COVID-19 restrictions in Sask. stop short of mask mandates despite rising cases

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
Saskatchewan's premier stops short of imposing mask mandates as new case counts climb to 432 — the province's second highest of the pandemic. But those with first-hand experience with COVID are disappointed.

We all have had enough of this pandemic and want it to end. But wishing it away will not work. 

Vaccines are indeed our way out of this in the long term, but at least 85-90% uptake in the population (including children) appears to be needed against this new COVID variant. 

Until enough people agree to do their part, we need to rely on other layers of protection to keep cases low enough to ensure our health system is there for us when we need it, and to keep our economy going. 

Ignoring this reality in an effort to maintain popularity is causing unnecessary deaths, illness and stress to our communities.

Misinformation and politicization of a public health emergency has created polarization, entrenched attitudes and threatens to undo all that we have worked for these past 18 months. 

Our rights come with responsibilities, and where one person's choice endangers others, those choices are constrained. 

This is the role of government. This is what we expect from our leaders. In the absence of government directives, it's time for all of us to face the facts. 

Fall is here, and winter may not be far behind. Until our leadership decides to do their part, it's time to bundle up and help our neighbours. Get immunized, and until things settle down, wear masks, give each other space, and minimize time spent in groups. 

We can get through this, but only if we come together.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Dr. Cory Neudorf is an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, in the department of community health and epidemiology.