Saskatoon·Video

Sask. gov't, chief medical health officer won't detail what COVID recommendations he has made

Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman says the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, has made "lots of recommendations" regarding COVID-19 "over the last little while," but neither Merriman nor Shahab will specify exactly what those recommendations are.

Health Minister says Shahab has made 'lots' of recommendations, but won't specify what they are

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, right, and Health Minister Paul Merriman, speak at a COVID-19 news conference in December 2020. Merriman and Shahab have not directly answered questions about what COVID-19 public health recommendations Shahab has made to the province. (CBC)

The Saskatchewan government and the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, are not directly answering questions about what COVID-19 public health recommendations Shahab has made to the province's leaders. 

CBC News asked the health ministry and executive council to specify Shahab's recommendations and their timing, so the public could have a better understanding of the decision making process during Saskatchewan's fourth wave. Those specifics have not been provided.

Saskatchewan's fourth wave of COVID-19 took hold in late August, culminating in overwhelmed hospitals and the government's announcement on Monday that it is sending six ICU patients to Ontario to help relieve the burden on Saskatchewan health-care workers.

Since July 11, when all public health measures were dropped, 212 Saskatchewan residents with COVID-19 have died. That represents 27 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in the province since the pandemic began. No new public health measure were announced for nearly two months until Sept. 10, when mandatory self-isolation for infected residents was reinforced. 

Two weeks earlier, several medical health officers had urged the government to adopt a host of measures to battle the fourth wave. Some of their ideas were eventually adopted, but health-care workers have continued to advocate for more measures as hospitalizations increase. 

Shahab, who is an employee of the Ministry of Health, cannot unilaterally impose new public health measures, but he can make recommendations for the government's consideration.

However, Shahab and Health Minister Paul Merriman have declined to provide specifics about those recommendations in recent days. 

'So what has he recommended?'

Last Thursday, after receiving his seasonal flu shot, Merriman was pressed on the subject by Canadian Press reporter Mickey Djuric. Merriman said Shahab has made "lots of recommendations over the last little while," but did not provide specifics, despite repeated prodding. 

Djuric: Has Dr. Shahab recommended to you or anyone in the government to put a restriction on gathering sizes, specifically in the home or in public places or private places?

Merriman: Like, forever?

Djuric: No, for recently. Has he recommended that at any point throughout the fourth wave to the government, to put restrictions on gatherings? 

Merriman: Dr. Shahab provides us with recommendations. 

Djuric: Was that one of them? 

Merriman: 'Was that one of them?' 

Djuric: Yeah.

Merriman: There was many recommendations that Dr. Shahab provides to us, and then we sit down and we have that discussion, right now, with our emergency operations, and all of that information is going to be filtered into there. So Dr. Shahab has provided recommendations and we continue to work with Dr. Shahab on this and his advice on a go forward basis. 

Djuric: But you're not denying that he did recommend that? Can you give us an example of some of the recommendations he has made?

Merriman: Well, I don't have those in front of me, no.

Djuric: But did he make the recommendations to you? 

Merriman: Dr. Shahab makes recommendations into the Ministry of Health and then the Ministry of Health make recommendations.

Djuric: But you don't remember them? So you don't know what he's recommended?

Merriman: No, I didn't say that. 

Djuric: OK. So what has he recommended? 

Merriman: I said he's made lots of recommendations over the last little while and we have to take those recommendations as we always have in the past and then apply them to real situations out there, looking at everything from our modelling to our vaccination rates. Again, this is part of the spectrum that we look at on a daily basis to see whether we have to do…. As I mentioned, in the last 30 days, we have had a lot of restrictions that have come into place in our province — more than ever.

WATCH | Merriman's full exchange with members of the media:

Saskatchewan health minister questioned on medical officer recommendations

1 year ago
Duration 1:32
Paul Merriman was repeatedly asked at a news conference Oct. 14 what Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, has recommended to the government during the fourth wave.

The next day, during a COVID-19 news briefing hosted by the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, Djuric asked Shahab if he had recently recommended that the government implement gathering size restrictions and if not, why not. 

While saying "we do constantly review all options," Shahab did not answer the question and went on to outline recommendations for the public, including mask wearing and physical distancing.   

He also cautioned people to be careful about their personal gatherings and to minimize their contacts over the next two weeks. 

CBC News reached out to the ministry and executive council on Monday to again ask what exactly Shahab has recommended to the province in recent months. 

"Conversations with Dr. Shahab happen on a daily and weekly basis as we work to address the impact of COVID-19 on the capacity of our health system," the government said in an email. "We thank Dr. Shahab for his sound advice and guidance throughout the pandemic."

'Recommendations have been enacted'

On Sept. 21, in response to CBC News' initial inquiry about Shahab's specific recommendations — which had only been sent to the Ministry of Health — Julie Leggott, the province's director of communications, said the government consulted with Dr. Shahab as the situation evolved. 

Premier Scott Moe and Merriman, the health minister, "are continuously engaged with public health officials and the Saskatchewan Health Authority regarding the recent increase in hospitalization numbers and the ongoing capacity of the health-care system," Leggott wrote. 

"Recommendations have been enacted through recent public health orders."

Leggott's statement came five days after Moe announced the province's proof-of-vaccination program for government employees and people entering some non-essential businesses, as well as the renewed requirement for people to wear masks in public. 

No clarification has been provided as to whether the steps announced on Sept. 16 were prompted by a recommendation from Shahab.

The initial response from the Ministry of Health similarly did not specify what recommendations Shahab has made to the government. 

That's something Ryan Meili, the leader of the Saskatchewan NDP Opposition, says should be happening. 

"If the government is in fact listening to our chief medical health officer's advice, there should be no issue releasing all recommendations Dr. Shahab has made since the beginning of July," Meili said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

with files from Mickey Djuric and The Canadian Press

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