Saskatchewan·Analysis

Saskatchewan premier's claim restrictions don't curb Omicron lacks evidence, epidemiologist says

This week, Premier Scott Moe said he did not think restrictions limiting people gathering and mixing had an impact on the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in other parts of Canada, a claim disputed by a Saskatchewan epidemiologist and infectious disease physician.

Saskatchewan is the only province without gathering or capacity limits

Premier Scott Moe said he does not see additional health measures as being "effective" to limit Omicron spread. (The Canadian Press)

This week, Premier Scott Moe said he did not think restrictions limiting people gathering and mixing had an impact on the spread of the Omicron in other parts of Canada.

Moe's comments flew in the face of a warning by chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab who said last week "this is not the time for any gatherings at all."

And on Friday, two doctors — a Saskatchewan epidemiologist and an infectious disease physician — added their voices to the critics.

When asked about implementing gathering measures that modelling showed could slow transmission, Moe said on Wednesday "it's now clear, at least in this Omicron wave of the pandemic, that lock-down policies can cause harm in our communities often with little or virtually no benefit."

He said past measures have been "necessary" and "effective," but said he could not see the merit this time. 

Moe pointed to economic, psychological harm, calling them "an infringement on the rights and freedoms that we have come to enjoy and and value as Canadians."

It is quite a dangerous thing to say, actually, that public health measures don't work when you are sitting right next to the chief medical health officer.- Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, epidemiologist

All other provinces have imposed gathering restrictions or capacity limits or a combination in the face of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Saskatchewan is the sole exception.

"This is not meant or directed as a criticism of any government. They're all trying to make the best decisions that they can on behalf of their citizens, and some of them, quite frankly, are dealing with an underlying Delta population that we just simply didn't have here in Saskatchewan as we went into our Omicron wave,"  Moe said.

"But it does help us inform the decision making that we are making here today and that we are making here in this province."

Moe said while hospitalizations have risen dramatically across Canada, they have not risen at near the same level in this province.

"That's why they should only be used if absolutely necessary, and only if they can clearly be shown that they are being effective and they are working. And we are not seeing that as being the case today."

Moe pointed to eastern Canada, where the current wave has hit particularly hard.

On Friday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said early indications show the rate of Omicron infections in Ontario and Quebec may be stabilizing.

"It is quite possible that in the next few days we'll see a peak in the cases," Tam said.

Shahab says Saskatchewan's curve is two to four weeks behind Ontario.

He says Saskatchewan needs to spread its infections out over a longer period of time, so hospitals do not become overwhelmed.

Despite the impending health-care system strain, Moe remained unconvinced additional restrictions were worthwhile.

"We're seeing spread regardless of what type of limits public health measures are in place," the premier said. "There's no need at this point to add additional public health measures as we don't see them being effective in other areas and we see what we are doing here in the province being quite effective.

"We will see some increased hospitalizations. We will see some pressure on our health-care system," Moe said.

Moe said vaccinations, rapid tests and following public health orders are sufficient.

On Thursday, Moe announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 on a rapid test.

How do you feel about what is or is not happening in Saskatchewan when it comes to pandemic management? We take your call and hear from Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan's college of medicine.

Epidemiologist questions Moe's claim

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist, says Moe's claim restrictions won't curb Omicron are false.

"The premier said they don't work but he doesn't produce any data or evidence." he said. "Where does he get his information?

"It is quite a dangerous thing to say, actually, that public health measures don't work when you are sitting right next to the chief medical health officer," said Muhajarine a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan." 

Muhajarine says he disagrees with the premier on the effectiveness of health measures.

"Throughout the pandemic, it has been shown very clearly that public health measures work," he said. "Without public health measures, we don't know where we would be in terms of the pandemic."

He says the province and the rest of Canada have seen exponential growth in infections due to Omicron. "If we were to apply the same logic, we wouldn't be asking people to get vaccines, either."

Muhajarine says Saskatchewan is not at the midpoint in its Omicron wave.

"We are going to see cases continue to rise, hospitalizations continue to rise and ICU beds occupied and pushed to the limit."

Nazeem Muhajarine is an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. He said it is "dangerous" for Premier Scott Moe to suggest health measures do not work. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

He says the government should introduce gathering restrictions and capacity limits for the short-term: "We need to pull out all the stops."

Muhajarine says limiting infection helps avoid outcomes including hospitalizations, death, and potential chronic COVID-19 illness.

Saskatchewan's premier has tested positive for COVID-19. That happened the day after the premier sat unmasked beside the chief medical health officer. CBC Saskatchewan provincial affairs reporter Adam Hunter and Leader Post columnist Murray Mandryk join host Stefani Langenegger on this week's political panel.

Moe says Sask. Delta wave could help limit Omicron

Moe said Wednesday Saskatchewan's Delta cases dropped when Omicron cases started to rise. He said other provinces were still experiencing high Delta cases and, because Omicron is believed to be less virulent, Saskatchewan could be spared when it comes to hospitalizations.

"They're really waging a battle on two fronts."

Moe did not back up his position that other provinces have an "underlying population" of Delta infections exacerbating the stress on hospitals and how it compares with Saskatchewan.

However, Regina infectious disease physician Dr. Alexander Wong said the claim "doesn't really make any sense to me."

"Like anywhere else in the world, once Omicron starts surging, it takes over very quickly," he said.

'Burning out'

Wong says Delta is "burning out" all across Canada but, comparatively, Saskatchewan and Alberta were hit harder by Delta with hospitalizations dropping here until recently.

He says people who have had two vaccines or a previous infection do not have the same protection against Omicron as they did with Delta.

How immunity from natural recovery to a Delta infection could impact Omicron here still to play out, Wong says.

Rather than comparing Ontario or Quebec trends with Saskatchewan's, Wong says, people should watch Alberta instead because it has similar dynamics with vaccination rate and Delta transmission.

He says Alberta is a week ahead of Saskatchewan, and hospitalizations there are trending up.

Wong says he thinks Moe's claim that restrictions elsewhere are not working is false. He says Moe cannot prove that Ontario's measures, for example, are not having an impact because the alternative is unknown.

The Saskatchewan government's own modelling released in December showed Omicron transmission would be slowed significantly with a reduction in population mixing, he added: "It showed very clearly if we didn't limit social contacts in a significant way we were going to get hit really, really, really hard." 

Wong says he is not buying into the thought that getting Omicron is inevitable.

"The reason why we need to try is to try and blunt the uptick as best we can. If we are able to spread [infection] out over five to eight weeks that gives the system time to respond without getting overwhelmed again."

He said measures give the health care system a "chance."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

with files from John Paul Tasker and CBC's Blue Sky

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