Saskatchewan

Sask. health minister says 'the buck stops' with him after delay in disclosing Lloydminster outbreak

Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter says the government did not handle disclosing a COVID-19 outbreak at the Lloydminster Hospital last week in a "timely manner" but says sharing of public health concerns is already changing.

NDP questions minster's handling of recent outbreaks

Jim Reiter, Saskatchewan minister of health, says communication of important public health information regarding COVID-19 needs to happen in a 'timely manner.' (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter says the government did not handle disclosing a COVID-19 outbreak at the Lloydminster Hospital last week in a "timely manner" but says sharing of public health concerns is already changing.

The government announced publicly last Wednesday afternoon that there were 13 cases at Lloydminster Hospital. Five health-care workers and eight patients were infected through transmission at the facility. 

The announcement came more than two days after it was declared internally by Dr. Mandiangu Nsungu, the medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority's northern region, which includes Lloydminster. 

Reiter said Monday, Dr. Nsungu notified ministry officials last Monday night in an email.

Reiter said after a review and back and forth with officials including Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab on Tuesday, Reiter said he received an email about the outbreak at 10:30 on Tuesday evening.

Reiter said the next morning he notified the executive council and Premier Scott Moe.

The mayor of Lloydminster, Gerald Aalbers, was not told about the outbreak until it was released publicly on Wednesday afternoon. 

"The buck stops with the minister the entire operation is under my responsibility, so I'll accept some responsibility," said Reiter.

Reiter said the ministry of health and Shahab's team need to evaluate all potential cases or clusters properly "before they declare something is an outbreak."

"I'm not prepared to throw ministry officials under the bus. Obviously we would have liked this to be handled in a more timely manner." 

Last Wednesday, the province declared a 'cluster' of 13 COVID-19 cases at the Lloydminster Hospital. It says the public should have known sooner. (Submitted)

Reiter said the government needs to make sure there are no unnecessary delays in getting information out.

He cited the recent case of a positive COVID-19 case involving a patient at Prince Albert's Victoria Hospital which was publicly disclosed "within hours" of its discovery.

On Monday, SHA CEO Scott Livingstone promised to be "much more transparent and timely" with information the public needs.

Last week, he said both public and staff were not at any additional risk due to the delay in notifying the public in Lloydminster.

NDP questions minister and messaging

NDP Leader Ryan Meili used his daily media conference to call into question Reiter's "handling of recent outbreaks."

Meili said the government was "downplaying" the initial outbreak in La Loche and delayed in notifying the public on the situation in Lloydminster.

"The health minister should be doing everything possible to provide the public with timely information they can trust. Unfortunately, that trust was shaken last week," Meili said.

He also took issue with a message that the situation La Loche was "under control."

On April 21, Northern medical health officer Dr. Rim Zayed said the first case in La Loche came from a worker who had been in Alberta. 

It was then transmitted to a health-care worker. The remaining three cases, including the long-term care resident, were all linked. 

The five cases were declared an outbreak because Zayed said the definition of an outbreak for long-term care is when one staff member or one patient is diagnosed with COVID-19.

"The situation is under control and there is also a continuous communication with the community," said Zayed on April 21. 

When asked about the comment on Monday, Reiter said to his recollection he and the premier had never used "under control" to describe the situation in La Loche.

He said Zayed, "couched it" and was referring to contact tracing efforts when using the term "under control."

"Politicians are fair game for other politicians to take a shot at. But if Mr. Meili was taking a shot at hardworking officials and doctors, I think that's just wrong," Reiter said.

Last week, the province declared an outbreak at Prince Albert's Victoria Hospital after one patient tested positive. The health minister says the public communication of the outbreak happened within hours. (Ryan Pilon/CBC)

Meili said he wants to know what role the health minister and Minister of Rural and Remote Health Warren Kaeding are playing in the pandemic response.

Reiter addressed questions on Friday at the government's daily media briefing but most of those have been attended by Moe, SHA officials and Shahab.

"I have been concerned about the lack of presence of the health minister and we've got a rural and remote outbreak right now. We haven't seen the minister of rural and remote health in any way. What is their role here," Meili said.

Moe defended Reiter on Monday saying he is "working day-in and day out" with his team on the government's response to COVID-19.

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 CBC's Alicia Bridges

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