Saskatoon·Audio

Emotional Sask. chief medical health officer pleads with public amid dire new COVID-19 modelling

"To see young lives lost to a vaccine-preventable disease — how can we accept this?" Dr. Saqib Shahab said Wednesday

Modelling shows there could be more than 200 COVID patients in ICUs by Jan. 1

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab became emotional during a COVID-19 news conference on Wednesday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

The number of Saskatchewan residents infected with COVID-19 and placed under intensive care could more than double by the new year if no additional public health measures are brought in and if people don't change their behaviours in the next few weeks, says the province's chief medical health officer.

Dr. Saqib Shahab broke down Wednesday during a COVID-19 media teleconference when discussing new modelling, which suggests a potential spike in COVID-19 ICU hospitalizations that would begin in early December and reach its peak in the new year.

As of Wednesday, there were 82 COVID-19 patients in Saskatchewan's ICUs, plus another 35 people without COVID-19, causing health workers in overburdened hospitals to send six ICU patients to Ontario.

The modelling — released by the government shortly before the news conference — suggests that even if booster shots are made available to more people, if current behaviour persists, the number of Saskatchewan COVID-19 patients in ICUs could reach well over 200 by Jan. 1. 

(Saskatchewan government)

Other modelling scenarios suggested that, if people reduce their contacts and measures such as private and public gathering limits are reintroduced, the number of COVID-19 ICU hospitalizations could be slowed or even go down from its current, unsustainable level. Saskatchewan normally has 79 available ICU beds in total. 

"What we do individually in terms of getting vaccinated, staying home if you're sick, being very careful around our gatherings, following all the protocols including mask use, can change the trajectory," Shahab said. "Our individual and collective behaviour is a key component that is, to some extent, impacted by government orders."

"But we've always worked hard and we've pulled together and it's been a divisive time many times," he continued, his voice breaking. "In the past, there's [been a] mention that: 'Dr. Shahab just pleads to the public and he doesn't direct an order,' but I have no shame in pleading to the public.

"We've gone so far. We just have to pull along for the next few weeks or months."

WATCH | Dr. Shahab breaks down during COVID-19 news conference:

Asked if he was OK by a reporter, Shahab paused at length and said: "All the evidence is out there. It is very distressing to see unvaccinated, young, healthy people ending up in ICU and dying. I'm watching this from a distance, but the pressure this puts.… We talk about doctor burnout. To see young lives lost to a vaccine preventable disease — how can we accept this?"

Another slide presented by Shahab showed how the majority of infected Saskatchewan people showing up in hospitals are unvaccinated.  

(Saskatchewan government)

"We need to be cautious until the ICU numbers come way down," Shahab said, cautioning in particular against large Halloween parties next weekend. 

"Lots of people mixing unvaccinated, vaccinated would be a recipe for future challenges."

If the province's case numbers and hospitalizations come down, "then we can cautiously hope for a better holiday season," he said. 

Shahab still silent on recommendations to government

Shahab has been asked lately to clarify what specific public health recommendations he has made to the Saskatchewan government during the fourth wave. As an employee of the Ministry of Health, Shahab cannot unilaterally impose public health orders, but he can make recommendations for the government's consideration.

While the government has adopted some measures cautioned by health-care workers, including a renewed mandatory masking order and a proof-of-vaccination policy for some workers and people wanting to enter some non-essential businesses, other suggested measures, including gathering limits, have not been launched. 


On Wednesday, before he broke down, Shahab was asked if he had recommended gathering limits prior to  Thanksgiving to the Saskatchewan government. He again declined to answer specifically. 

"From my side, all options are presented to government and it is up to government to accept options that they think are appropriate for that point in time. But again, my preference is that we be proactive rather than reactive," Shahab said. 

When pressed further, he said it was up to the government's cabinet members to disclose details of his recommendations. 

"This is the same in every province," he said. 


Below is the full modelling presentation shared on Wednesday. 

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Earlier this week, the government's director of communications declined to provide those details. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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