Saskatoon

Sask. doctors encourage masking as COVID-19 wave expected to burden hospitals this fall

Medical health officers in Saskatchewan are encouraging people to wear masks in some situations, like indoors, as another wave of COVID-19 is expected to put weight on a hospital system that is already overcapacity.

Doctors advocate for local medical health officers to provide COVID-19 updates

Some doctors are suggesting people consider masking indoors as another wave of COVID-19 is expected in Saskatchewan this fall. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Doctors are concerned that without some masking from Saskatchewan residents, a forecasted wave of COVID-19 this fall could add to hospital admissions in an already thinly stretched health-care system.

Dr. Cory Neudorf, an epidemiologist and Saskatchewan Health Authority interim senior medical health officer, said there are already signs of an incoming wave, but it's difficult to predict how it will affect the province given peoples' waning immunity from vaccines and previous infection.

Despite that uncertainty, Neudorf expects that this wave — similar to previous waves in Saskatchewan — will press hospitals that are already overcapacity.

"They're really stretched already — very, very little room for extra pressures right now," he told Stefani Langenegger, host of CBC's The Morning Edition.

He said the medical wards in Saskatoon and Regina are both overcapacity, with ICUs faring a little better. 

"Any kind of increase would be very bad right now," Neudorf said. "We're already seeing medical patients off-serviced onto surgical beds."

LISTEN | Sask. Health Authority doctor says hospitals stretched thin, residents should consider indoor masking
Dr. Cory Neudorf says more people should be wearing masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 this fall, or it will be "very bad" for Saskatchewan's hospitals already struggling with capacity issues.

Neudorf said people ought to consider taking preventive behaviours like self-screening and masking now, rather than waiting on mandated restrictions, otherwise "we could still see a pretty sizable wave this fall."

On Friday, Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab also said it could be time to start masking indoors again amidst hospital admissions that are trending upward. 

He also encouraged people to stay at home if they're ill and to get vaccinated.

Shahab said he believes the monthly COVID-19 report provided by the province offers a good indicator for risk assessments, but that the province will be looking at the data reporting frequency.

When asked how the province would manage heightened hospitalizations, he didn't provide a specific answer.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, talks about the state of COVID-19 on Aug. 19, 2022. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Neudorf said he's masking in crowded indoor environments with strangers, like grocery stores, and suggested others do the same.

"What we need is just a much higher rate of mask use than what we have right now but not necessarily at the same rate as we saw during mandates," he said.

Mandatory masking remains in effect in some places, like in Saskatchewan Health Authority facilities.

Looking to local health officers for advice

Since early February, when the province ceased reporting data daily on the online COVID-19 dashboard, Saskatchewan has progressively eased into monthly reporting. The first monthly report was released on Thursday.

"What we're relying on is local medical health officers from the Saskatchewan Health Authority speaking to media, to partners like school divisions, et cetera, about what the local situation is like," Neudorf said.

He said the health authority is working with the provincial health ministry to provide more local information.

Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka oversees the COVID-19 situation in some Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan as the medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, which provides weekly COVID-19 updates.

He agreed that local medical health officers should have the opportunity to provide more localized information to their regions.

"Local medical health officers understand the local context better and they're able to perform risk assessments that are unique to their regions," he said. 

"No two places are the same."

There were five known active cases in the region and no hospitalizations as of Tuesday, but Ndubuka said he is concerned about low booster dose vaccine uptake in the northern region and how a seventh wave could affect residents.

While more than 80 per cent for people aged five years and older have their first and second shots, only 24 per cent of people in the region have third doses and two per cent have a fourth dose as of Tuesday.

Ndubuka said masking indoors and in groups is already encouraged, especially among immunocompromised people. Although there are no plans to mandate masks, he said it could be considered in conversation with local leaders.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dayne Patterson is a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan and is based in Saskatoon. He has a master's degree in journalism with an interest in data reporting and Indigenous affairs. Reach him at dayne.patterson@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC's The Morning Edition

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