Health risk to seniors 'overlooked' in Sask government reopening plan, doctors say

Nearly all Canadian COVID-19 fatalities were people more than 60 years old or who had serious medical conditions, but the Saskatchewan government’s 39-page plan to reopen society contains only one line about these vulnerable groups.

U.S., others tell seniors and medically compromised to stay home during initial coronavirus reopening phases

Some health experts would like Saskatchewan to follow the U.S. reopening plan. In the U.S., seniors and medically vulnerable individuals are being told to stay home until later phases of the plan because they're at far higher risk of death if infected with COVID-19. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

Nearly all Canadian COVID-19 fatalities were people more than 60 years old or who had serious medical conditions, but the Saskatchewan government's 39-page plan to reopen society contains only one line addressed to these vulnerable groups.

Doctors and other health experts say that's not nearly enough.

"There was a lot of discussion about hobbies for the more affluent members of our society. Seeing how much effort was put into talking about golf and camping, but not seeing that same sort of consideration for those vulnerable populations was a bit disheartening for me," said Saskatoon family physician Carla Holinaty.

"The elderly, the immune-compromised and the chronically sick people – they were overlooked."

More than 90 per cent of Canadians who've died of coronavirus were over age 60, according to federal government records. In Saskatchewan, the youngest was a 69-year-old man waiting for a kidney transplant.

The first phase of Re-Open Saskatchewan plan begins in a few days. During the month of May, hair salons, massage therapists, acupuncturists and other non-essential businesses requiring close contact will be allowed to start seeing customers.

Saskatoon family physician Dr. Carla Holinaty said she's disappointed the government's 39-page reopening plan talked extensively about golf courses but very little about seniors or medically vulnerable people. (submitted by Carla Holinaty)

In the U.S. and other jurisdictions, seniors and vulnerable groups are being told to "shelter in place" at home until the final phases of the economic restart because of the increased risk of sickness and death. If businesses open and there's no evidence of a second or third infection wave, these groups "can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing," according to the plan from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

That isn't the case in Saskatchewan. Seniors and other vulnerable individuals "should continue to exercise caution and minimize high-risk exposures, such as public outings," but the decision is left to them.

Holinaty said it's important for seniors and other vulnerable people to talk to their doctor if they're considering any high risk activity. She wants them to be aware of the potential consequences.

"If the very most important thing in your entire life is being able to hug your grandkids, and you're willing to accept the risk that those hugs might mean you get a potentially lethal infection, do you think that's a tradeoff that's worthwhile? Or does remaining healthy and extending your life trump that?" Holinaty said.

"My guidance would be to err on the side of caution."

Holinaty said none of her family plans to host barbecues or violate social distancing rules inside a non-essential business in the near future.

"We're not willing to take a risk for something trivial that might jeopardize the health of my entire family," she said.

Saskatoon health policy consultant Dr. Dennis Kendel hopes the Saskatchewan government will follow the U.S. plan. Saskatchewan was the first province to release a reopening plan, and Kendel is confident they'll be able to admit when changes are necessary.

"If you think there's a gap, there's no great embarrassment in going back and saying 'You know, we need to be a bit more detailed.' And I think that probably should occur and it may well occur," said Kendel, former registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan.

June Gawdun, executive director of the Saskatoon Council on Aging, said her group is undecided on whether seniors should remain isolated in the initial phases.

But any seniors considering a massage, haircut or other hands-on service should call the business and get a detailed explanation of hygiene practices, she said.

"They should take precautions," she said.

Health policy analyst Steven Lewis said it's vital to educate society about the most dangerous practices, but also the types of people at the highest risk. Saskatchewan's re-open plan covers the first point extensively but nearly ignores the second.

"Put the numbers out there," Lewis said. "'If you're over 80 and you get COVID-19, you could die, even if you're otherwise healthy.' If officials are comfortable publishing a graph or chart that shows estimated fatality rates by age group, do it."

In other provinces and countries, most people who died of coronavirus also had one or more previous serious health conditions. A Saskatchewan Health Authority official said that information is tracked, but declined to release it.


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