COVID-19 in Sask: 30 new cases confirmed, 18 attributed to snowmobile rally

A total 30 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Saskatchewan, including 18 which are being attributed to a snowmobile rally dinner held at Christopher Lake on Saturday, March 14.  

Extra workers to be deployed to trace contact with those infected

Health officials have flagged a recent snowmobile rally and supper at Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan as a COVID-19 flashpoint. (Lakeland Tree Dodgers Snowmobile Club/Facebook)

Click here for the latest: COVID-19 in Sask: SHA makes plea to public to follow physical distancing, stay home

A total 30 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Saskatchewan, including 18 which are being attributed to a snowmobile rally dinner held at Christopher Lake on Saturday, March 14. 

"The outcome of this event demonstrates the importance of physical distancing at this time," said a news release from the province.

A statement released Saturday afternoon said four people have now recovered from the virus. 

Dr. Shahab said at a news conference Saturday afternoon that additional workers are being deployed to assist with tracing those who might have come into contact with people infected at the snowmobile event.

At the time of the Christopher Lake rally, the province had announced it would cap the number of people allowed at events to 250, but that change did not take effect until March 16 — two days after the rally. Two other COVID-19 cases had previously been linked to the snowmobile event, bringing the total number of cases traced to the dinner to 20. 

Dr. Shahab was asked at the Saturday news conference whether stricter limits on the size of gatherings should have been introduced earlier.

"We really were leading in terms of limits on gatherings, and really in hindsight you can say 'yes maybe' but really we started seeing the first cases travel within about three, three and a half weeks ago," he said. 

"We're trying to stay ahead of the curve but having said that going forward I think we need to be extremely vigilant."

About 110 people were at the Lakeland Snowmobile Club Wilderness Rally Supper. The health authority does not have a comprehensive list of everyone who was at the event, but they have contacted more than 70 and are asking all attendees to immediately self-isolate or contact Healthline at 8-1-1 if they have symptoms.

Two other events have been linked to cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan. In addition to the 20 people associated with the snowmobile rally, three people tested positive after attending the Pacific Dental Conference in Vancouver in early March, and 11 were linked to a curling bonspiel in Edmonton attended by doctors. 

"We have to be very careful not to assign blame to any event," said Dr. Shahab, adding that nobody wants to invite people to an event to get them sick.

Prior to today's announcement about new cases linked to the event, Tom McKnight, the president of the club that held the rally, told CKBI radio in Prince Albert that at the time there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan. He said if organizers had known how it was going to turn out, they would have cancelled.

Dr. Shahab said most people who have the virus are experiencing mild symptoms.

He said the risk is everywhere and people should take the same precautions regardless of whether they are aware of any cases in their community. 

Provincial response

At a press conference on Friday, the Saskatchewan government said urban and rural response will differ when it comes to COVID-19. 

During the press conference, Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said the authority is preparing specific plans for rural and urban communities. 

"Are the rural plans going to be identical to the urban or north? No. They won't be identical because it's going to be based on the volume of patients they might see and the type of care that they may require." 

Livingstone said there will be certain protocols in place at the larger urban centres like Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Regina, as the province will likely be sending the "sickest of the sick" to the larger hospitals. 

CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Scott Livingstone and the province's Chief Medical Health Officer, speak to reporters on March 27, 2020. (CBC)

He said a lot of the planning around the rural response is happening right now. 

"We will determine where patients will be cared for in local facilities, what type of staffing is required to ensure that we have the right staff in place and what type of equipment will have to put in place to support that care."

Community transmission cases most important to watch

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said he hopes the number of travel-related cases decreases thanks to the mandatory 14-day isolation period international travelers must abide by. However, he said now it's community transmission they have to monitor closely.

"If we do everything that I described before, we will flatten the curve," he said. "Other countries have shown that you can flatten the curve, maintain community transmission at a low level and we have to watch that and maintain that."

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, speaks with reporters on Friday, March 27. He says front-line healthcare staff will be given priority for testing, even if they have not traveled. (CBC)

Shahab said if community transmission continues to climb health officials will examine the reasoning behind it and work to improve prevention. 

"Then we can improve our advice based on is there something we missed in terms of our public-health order recommendations."

Cases in Saskatchewan are spread across the province, with three cases currently being reported in the far north, 13 cases being reported in the north, eight cases in central Saskatchewan, 48 cases in Saskatoon, four in the south and 28 in Regina. 

Of the cases, six people are hospitalized, including two who are currently in intensive care.

'Spread out' when outdoors, urges mayor

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark wrote in a social media post Saturday that people who want to spend time outside should try to disperse themselves. 

"Please spread out all over the whole city when you go walking, biking, scootering this weekend. We have many beautiful streets and big parks, many that you probably haven't seen yet!," said Clark. 

"I know the Meewasin Trail is beautiful, but if everyone goes there it's going to be tough to practice #physcialdistancing."

He said the city has heard requests from people who want to close streets or the traffic bridge to cars to make more room for pedestrians. 

"This is something that we have looked at and will continue to monitor for," said Clark. 

"The challenge is, we don't want to create 'destinations' where people congregate, we want you to spread out not just on one street but to all streets!"

Community closed to traffic

Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, which is about 100 kilometres north of Saskatoon, enacted a state of emergency on Friday in response to the pandemic. 

The community has closed incoming roads to all traffic that is not emergency-related or deemed essential. 

It has set up checkpoints and said it may turn away anyone who is considered a COVID-19 risk. Health services will continue to operate.   

"This is to protect health and safety of our people, especially those that may be vulnerable such as our Elders," reads a statement from Chief Kelly Wolfe. 

With files from The Canadian Press