COVID-19 in Sask: Senior medical health officer warns stigma may prevent testing

The senior medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority has warned that stigma around COVID-19 is preventing some people from getting tested. 

Dr. Julie Kryzanowski says people who seek testing should be celebrated

The drive-thru testing site in Saskatoon will be closed Dec. 24 to 27, Dec. 31, as well as Jan. 1 to 2. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

The senior medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority has warned that stigmatizing COVID-19 is preventing some people from getting tested. 

"I have seen some people stigmatized during this pandemic: those who are sick with COVID-19, emergency or health-care professionals and other essential workers, people from northern communities, and Indigenous people," said Dr. Julie Kryzanowski in a written message released Tuesday. 

The health authority is investigating why the number of people getting tested is going down. A total of 256 people were tested on May 11, the lowest number of tests in one day since March 16.

Kryzanowski said part of the reason for that is a reduction in the transmission of illness and the success of public measures like physical distancing.

"At the same time, we also know that there may be barriers to testing and we're working to understand and resolve those," she said. 

"One of those barriers is stigma."

Kryzanowski said there have been instances where people have reported that they do not want to be tested if they could be identified as having COVID-19, especially in small communities where confidentiality is more of a concern.

She said stigma is not just affecting individuals but whole communities.

"In some cases, people are fearful of admitting symptoms and getting tested, and I am very concerned about that," she said.

On Sunday, a letter from the head of the North West Communities Incident Command Centre raised concerns about the "temptation to blame us for the complex issues in the northwest." 

Rick Laliberte wrote to Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, on behalf of the Treaty 10 Pandemic Council and the northwest command centre, which represents 24 northern Saskatchewan communities. 

"Many people in the province are expressing this attitude, and this is not only deeply painful to us, but also dangerously divisive to the social fabric of our province," reads the letter. 

The message from Kryzanowski calls for compassion, care and unity during the pandemic. 

"Northern Saskatchewan and some Indigenous communities have been hit extremely hard by COVID-19 in the past few weeks, just as the south was hit hard earlier this spring," she said. 

"The fact is, this virus is extremely contagious; anyone could get it, young and old alike."

She said people who seek testing should be celebrated for doing their part. She urged members of the public to seek testing even if their symptoms are mild.

New First Nations, Métis health committee

Kryzanowski's message was part of a weekly update document outlining how the Saskatchewan Health Authority is preparing for health services to resume on May 19. 

On May 5, the SHA announced its four-phase plan to reopen health services that have been shut down or limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a written update released Tuesday morning, the health authority outlined some of the measures it is taking ahead of May 19. 

A First Nations and Métis health COVID-19 communications committee has been created to "communicate, collaborate and discuss" pandemic issues affecting Indigenous communities. 

Indigenous Services Canada, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority are among the members of the group, along with health authority and provincial government representatives. 

"We help empower local decision making by providing information about the situations, risks, resources available and actions that local communities have taken," said the update document released Tuesday. 

Outbreak communication improving: SHA

The health authority said it is working to improve its communication surrounding outbreaks at its facilities. 

In late April, an outbreak at the Lloydminster Hospital that led to at least 13 COVID-19 cases was not announced to the public, or communicated to Premier Scott Moe, for at least two days. 

Health authority CEO Scott Livingstone later addressed the delay, saying the public should have been told sooner and improvements would be made to avoid a similar situation in the future.

In northern Saskatchewan, the SHA said it has increased the capacity for ambulance services and added more advanced-care paramedics to work in the region. 

The health authority said it has also set up a mental health support line for health-care workers. 

Launched on May 4, the support line is accessible to health workers from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. CST. 

The health authority has also received donations of phones and tablets to help address loneliness among long-term care residents who cannot have visitors.