Saskatchewan

'We need to get ahead of this': Sask. epidemiologist says masks should be mandatory to slow COVID-19

A Saskatoon epidemiologist says the provincial government should mandate indoor mask use and provide more specific information on COVID-19 cases.

Sask. known active COVID-19 cases increase by 400 per cent in less than two weeks

Two women in Saskatoon walk wearing masks, a choice one Saskatoon epidemiologist would like to see made mandatory. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

A Saskatoon epidemiologist says the provincial government should mandate indoor mask use and provide more specific information on COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine teaches community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

In less than two weeks, Saskatchewan has seen known active cases rise from 43 to 218, a 400 per cent increase.

Muhajarine said by keeping masks optional, the province is not being proactive.

"I think we need to get ahead of this," he said.

"Why not actually introduce mandatory mask-wearing when inside when you cannot socially distance and it would make it feel safe?"

Last week, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses called for mandatory masking.

A recent Angus Reid survey showed 55 per cent of Saskatchewan residents supported a mandatory mask policy. The 45 per cent who said they were against mandatory mask policies represented the highest total of any province in Canada.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said last week that a recommendation to wear a mask when physical distancing isn't possible was good enough.

Shahab said Tuesday that indoors spaces where people are crowded is where COVID-19 spread is occurring.

Muhajarine said the government should not be waiting and watching the numbers rise before acting. 

"How long do we wait? How many cases do we need to see before we move on a policy that hospitals have instituted and research has shown that it is effective," Muhajarine said.

On Thursday, Premier Scott Moe tweeted the newest numbers and said, "we do not want to go back to having to close businesses, services and activities."

Specific case locations needed, says epidemiologist

Muhajarine told CBC last week the province should provide the public with more details of where COVID-19 cases are.

He said this week that with the ongoing spike in cases that should start now.

On Thursday, he said disclosing businesses or communities where a person with COVID-19 has visited or worked is not good enough.

"People don't live in businesses, those people live in communities and neighbourhoods and small towns. And we need to be able to identify whether those places are experiencing community spread."

He said other jurisdictions have provided more specific information that does not identify an infected person.

"I live in Nutana [a Saskatoon neighbourhood]. And if my neighbourhood has community spread of COVID-19, I'd like to know that."

Muhajarine said that would cause people to increase their vigilance and maybe stay home more frequently until new cases drop.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan's department of community health and epidemiology in the College of Medicine, says the provincial government needs to be more proactive in fighting COVID-19 spread. (University of Saskatchewan/On Campus News)

This week, Saskatchewan's information and privacy commissioner Ron Kruzeniski said the government could include more detailed information without compromising privacy.

The government has been hesitant to give specific case information.

Shahab has said people need to act as if the virus is in their community and that if there were not publicly reported cases in a jurisdiction it could give people a false sense of security.

On Tuesday, Shahab said instances of community transmission are most significant. He said recent cases in Prince Albert could not be explained and were more noteworthy than a larger outbreak situation, where transmission can be traced. The government put a public call-out on July 7 for people to seek testing.

Shahab said he doesn't think it's helpful to tell a town of 500 people that there are seven cases present if all of them have self-isolated after a trip and haven't spread it to anyone. 

Rather, he is more likely to notify a city of 10,000 people if there are three or four cases that cannot be attributed to travel, events, or a close contact.  

On Wednesday, the government provided specific information that a communal living setting in the RM of Lawtonia had 43 of the 60 new cases. 

It also listed 17 RMs where Hutterite communities have known active cases.

On Thursday, the Manitoba government agreed to stop identifying Hutterite colonies where cases exist.

with files from CBC's Saskatchewan and CBC's Alex Soloducha

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