COVID-19 in Sask: Province declares state of emergency after number of cases doubles

One of the new cases does not have a demonstrated link to new travel, the province says.

1 of the new cases does not have demonstrated link to recent travel

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and Health Minister Jim Reiter spoke at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

Click here for the latest story: COVID-19 in Sask: Regina mayor says groups of 4-5 max 'is the rule we should follow'

  • 16 total reported cases now, including eight new cases since Tuesday.
  • 2 cases are confirmed and 14 cases are presumptive
  • 1 new case does not have demonstrated link to recent travel. 
  • Top doc predicts at least 30 per cent of Saskatchewan residents will eventually contract virus. 
  • Public gatherings now capped at 50 people, down from 250 people.
  • Gyms and casinos ordered to close.
  • Restaurants can remain open but may eventually be limited to takeout only.
  • Provincial government employees told to work from home. 
  • Saskatoon inmates released early due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Saskatchewan government has declared a state of emergency after the number of COVID-19 coronavirus cases doubled from eight to 16 in one day.

The province laid down strict new rules, including a ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people. Restaurants and bars must keep half of their seats empty or cap the number of customers to 50.

"All [establishments] must be able to ensure social distance of one to two metres between customers," according to the province.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations are exempt from that rule, "but must have processes to maintain a one-to-two-metre separation."

All gyms, casinos and bingo halls must close. 

Soon after the announcement, a group of 197 Saskatchewan doctors called on all other businesses to close or "transform their businesses in a way that eliminates person-to-person interaction."

"Please, we beg you, join us in battling this disease," they said. You can read the full letter here.

The provincial government also asked all employees who can work from home to do so immediately. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority will stop all non-urgent or elective surgeries as of this coming Monday. 

FSIN declares its own state of emergency

Shortly after the province's announcement, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, declared its own state of emergency.

"Many of our First Nations are not prepared for this pandemic as it continues to escalate in our region," said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron in a news release.

"Some of our First Nations do not have health services or access to necessary supplies and medicines to combat the spread of COVID-19 and cases are continuing to increase across the province."

'We need to self-isolate'

"We will get through this together," Premier Scott Moe said of the growing crisis. "But we all have our responsibilities and we have to take them seriously."

Moe said he's heard anecdotal evidence of some travellers returning from abroad and remaining outside in the community.

"We simply cannot do that," he said. "We need to self-isolate."

Fifteen of the province's 16 COVID-19 cases are well enough to self-isolate at home, Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health office, said at a news conference with Moe Wednesday afternoon.

One of the new cases may be an instance of community (non-travel-related) transmission, according to a government release issued shortly before the news conference.

"We have an instance where the contact investigation has not yet demonstrated a link to travel," the release said.

"We need to hunker down," said Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, on Wednesday. (CBC)

Shahab was asked about that section of the news release.

"We don't have any evidence of community transmission at this point," he said. "We expect it to happen at some point."

'Hopefully that will slow the risk' 

Shahab said the virus' spread is happening fast but remains manageable provided people take the right steps.

"It is a time to hunker down and calm everything for a while," Shahab said. "Hopefully that will slow the risk of this taking off any more quickly than it should."

Shahab said he expects at least 30 per cent of Saskatchewan's population to eventually contract COVID-19, with two to five per cent of those cases requiring intensive care.

He said the health system can handle a gradual increase of cases over the next eight to 12 months, but not an immediate surge in intensive cases.

"That's exactly the point of all the social distancing," he said.

Moe echoed a grave warning made earlier by Shahab.

"If we're not able to flatten the curve, there's no health system in the world that will be able to manage what will occur."

2 flights flagged

The province again encouraged all people returning from anywhere outside Canada to self-isolate for 14 days and flagged two recent international flights in particular: 

  • Sunwing Flight WG540 on March 14, from Cancun to Regina.
  • Sunwing Flight WG496 on March 14, Cabo San Lucas to Regina. 

Anyone who was on one of those flights is asked to self-isolate and actively monitor themselves for symptoms.

Details on 8 new cases

Some demographic information was released on the eight new cases Wednesday. 

The new cases were listed as:

  • A person in their 30s who was tested in Regina.
  • A person their 40s who was tested following close contact with a previously announced presumptive positive case in Saskatchewan.
  • A person in their 20s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel from Tennessee.
  • A person in their 20s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel to Oregon, Nevada and Edmonton.
  • A person in their 40s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel from Vancouver.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Moose Jaw after travel from Vancouver.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Regina following travel from Cancun, Mexico.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Regina following travel from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Below is a breakdown of the first eight cases reported by the province. 

Stricter social distancing advice

Shahab has encouraged people to cancel gatherings such as weddings and birthday parties.

"My own personal recommendation is that this is not the time to have that big indoor gathering," Shahab said. "Kids home from school, even if you want to have a play-date, maybe one or two people, not 20 people in the basement."

Previously, Shahab ordered that no public gathering of more than 250 people in one room take place.

Here's a breakdown of how many people had been tested and how many tests overall have been performed as of Monday. Some people have been tested more than once.



FSIN calls for liquor store closures

Earlier on Tuesday, the FSIN called on the province to close all liquor stores, saying alcohol will only encourage gatherings. FSIN voiced its concerns on Twitter. 

"If our province is closing all schools and casinos, it is only logical that this same measure be carried to liquor stores and establishments," the group tweeted at the Scott Moe government.

"Alcohol creates and increases situations of high-risk behaviour and entices groups to gather, which will only contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the province. This is also a growing problem in the North, with bootleggers ramping up criminal activities."

Cameron said he sent a letter to Moe and the minister in charge of the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA), Gene Makowsky, on Wednesday morning. 

The letter came after the SLGA announced on Tuesday it would shut down casinos in Regina and Moose Jaw.

"Liquor stores that are still operating, the reality is they're still selling to individuals who are bootlegging in our First Nations," Cameron said. 

"Now compound that with COVID-19. This is something that our leaders and our First Nations need to not worry about ... the major focus should be the safety, health and well-being of First Nations people."

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is calling on Premier Scott Moe to shut down the province's liquor stores in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Cameron said he was concerned about people with addictions still gathering in lounges and playing VLTs. He said that presents an opportunity for the virus to spread while the province is encouraging people to stay home.

Of Saskatchewan's 16 COVID-19 cases so far, two are in the province's north. One of them, a person in their 30s who had travelled to Nigeria and Germany was tested positive in Southend, Sask. — located 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon — on March 11.

Shahab has said he's particularly worried about the spread of the virus in the North. 

SaskPower stops collections

SaskPower announced Wednesday that it is halting collections and will stop disconnecting customers who are behind on payments.

"We know the impact of the current pandemic can affect household finances, and that is why we are taking these measures today," said Shawn Schmidt, the Crown corporation's vice-president of distribution and customer services. 

"Flexible payment arrangements will continue to be available to customers during the pandemic. All customers will ultimately be responsible to pay for the power they use."

Special Saskatoon council meeting

Saskatoon city council has called a special COVID-19-themed meeting for Thursday at city hall.

"A report is forthcoming," the city said on its website. "The meeting is expected to be live-streamed."

It will begin at 12 p.m. CST Thursday.