'Searching for answers:' Saskatchewan records deadliest month of COVID-19

As of Sunday, there have been 151 deaths reported since Jan .1 — almost half of all of the province's 304 pandemic deaths.

151 deaths reported since Jan .1 account for almost half of all 304 pandemic deaths in Sask.

Beverley Hartnell poses for a photo at her home in Regina on Saturday Jan. 30, 2021. Hartnell’s 88-year-old father Bernard died of COVID-19 on Jan. 11. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

When Beverley Hartnell's father died of COVID-19, she also lost another family.

Before the pandemic, she visited her father on the dementia unit at his long-term care home in Regina every day. The former school teacher and vice-principal loved math and science and could still recite elements off the periodic table.

Over four years of daily visits, Hartnell says she came to know dozens of others who shared the second floor at the Santa Maria Senior Citizens Home.

In all, 13 residents at the home have died from COVID-19. Another 24 have tested positive.

Beverley Hartnell is shown with her father Bernard Hartnell in this handout image. When Beverley Hartnell's father died of COVID-19, she also lost another family. (HO-Beverley Hartnell/The Canadian Press)

"I've still got so many people on the second floor that I love like they're my parents," Hartnell said in a recent interview.

"Even though some of them are still alive, I don't know who is and who isn't and I don't get to know ... I'll never go back again. And if I did, I don't know who I would see," she said, her voice quivering.

The deadliest month

January has been the deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic yet in Saskatchewan.

Last November, 22 people died of virus-related complications in the province. In December, there were just over 102.

As of Sunday, there have been 151 deaths reported since Jan .1 -- almost half of all of the province's 304 pandemic deaths.

In January, there was someone in their 20s who died of COVID-19 and many in their 60s and 70s. But there were more 80 and over.

Outbreaks in long-term care homes 

The virus's second wave has been deadly to some of the most vulnerable, like Hartnell's father.

A government spokeswoman says that from last March until November, nine people in personal and long-term care homes died of COVID-19.

Since Dec. 1, at least another 81 care home residents have died.

"We feel guilty, we feel responsible, we feel like we've failed," said Wayne Nogier, CEO of the Mont St. Joseph Home in Prince Albert, which reported the first of its 17 infections last December.

He said seven residents died during an outbreak at the centre.

And although death is expected when working in specialized senior's care, "death due to COVID isn't."

"We've learned to cope, but it isn't comfortable," he said.

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Hartnell said she was at least six feet away and wearing protective gear when she said her goodbyes to her father.

Unable to hold his hand, she told him what an amazing dad he had been to her and her siblings and how much they loved him.

And that if he was tired, he should rest.

Bernard Hartnell died on Jan. 11. He was 88.

Beverley Hartnell said she has lost other people before, like her mother to cancer. But in those cases, "I wasn't searching for answers like I am in this."

"This is really hurting so many people."

She said she would like to see stronger isolation plans for care home residents who test positive for COVID-19.

Cases on the decline 

Health officials have said spread of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan appears to be improving, albeit slowly, and they expect to see fewer people dying from the virus.

But Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said the current death numbers are concerning.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine says continued community transmission will lead to more deaths. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Another worry is the impact that COVID-19 variants could have on the province, which for the past month has had one of the highest rates of active cases per capita in Canada.

Muhajarine said recent studies suggest the variant from the United Kingdom appears to be more fatal and more transmissible, however, vaccines against it seem to be effective.

"The more transmission is in the community, the more likely we are going to see the variants, and the more likely we will have deaths," he said.

"Everything moves together."

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