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Sask. should bring in health restrictions for Thanksgiving, epidemiologist says

Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine has some advices to stay safe in the holiday.

'We have to do all the things that we were doing last year for Thanksgiving,' says Nazeem Muhajarine

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine suggests taking a calculated risk this Thanksgiving and advises fully vaccinated households should meet with just one another fully vaccinated household only if the members of the households are not circulating in the community. (Cabeca de Marmore / Shutterstock)

Barely a week is left before Thanksgiving, but COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province, inspiring questions around the safety of celebrations. 

Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said after 19 months of the pandemic, the Saskatchewan government is unable to act on important lessons and the province continues to experience the tragic consequences of their inaction.

"Saskatchewan is three per cent of Canada's population, but we are contributing more than 10 per cent of our active cases, so more than three times," Muhajarine said.

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are seeing an all-time high in the province. According to the provincial government's COVID-19 dashboard, 340 people with the disease are now in Saskatchewan hospitals which also includes 73 in intensive care units.

Saskatchewan's average COVID-19 death rate over the past fortnight has been among the highest in Canada. The province recorded ten more deaths on Tuesday bringing the total death toll since the pandemic began to 726.

"That urgency that was somewhat palpable in the first wave is no longer there," Muhajarine said.

He said that lack of urgency among the public is due to the inaction of political leaders. He said the province should bring back the health restrictions to avoid what Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab referred to in a news conference last week as a trajectory toward a "fall and winter of misery." 

"We will not only not have Thanksgiving at this rate, we will likely not have Christmas and New Years at this rate," Shahab had said.

Repeat last year's precautions

Muhajarine said even though more people are now vaccinated than last year, the "game-changing delta variant" is still spreading.  

"We have to do all the things that we were doing last year for Thanksgiving," he said.

In advance of the Thanksgiving long weekend last year, the Saskatchewan Health Authority had discouraged residents from non-essential and recreational travel. The indoor and outdoor gatherings were set to have a maximum of 30 people with a two-metre separation between members of different households.

In that week, Saskatchewan had reported 34 new cases of COVID-19 bringing the total number of reported cases to 2,068 and active cases to 161. 

Presently, the situation is worse as Saskatchewan reported 242 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday — which, on a per capita measure, is worse than most provinces — but still the public health measures remain absent.

Nazeem Muhajarine is an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. (University of Saskatchewan)

"Saskatchewan happens to be the hot spot of all 10 provinces and three territories, and particularly Saskatoon, we are the hottest spot of a hot spot," he said.

Muhajarine suggested taking a calculated risk this Thanksgiving and advises making an individual assessment about personal risk levels. Muhajarine said if one is fully vaccinated and lives with fully vaccinated people, the risk is low if the members of the household are not circulating in the community. 

He suggests such households can get together with another family who are fully vaccinated and keep to themselves.

"I wouldn't have a big party of four or six families, or 15 to 20 people. If two families of three or four each were to get together, I think that is safe. That is taking a calculated risk but a safe risk."

Muhajarine advised against large gatherings even when outdoors and suggested ensuring a physical distance of two metres. He said normalizing conversations around vaccination status can help individuals make informed decisions on their guest lists.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Saskatchewan New Democrats also demanded the province reinstate indoor gathering size limits..

"We all want to celebrate with our families. We all want to have that time together. None of us want that celebration to be the last time we see a family member because they got sick," said Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili. 

Nobody from the Ministry of Health and Saskatchewan Health Authority was available to comment over two days.

The ministry said in a news release Tuesday that household gatherings remain as the primary source of transmission of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan with close quarters and shared food service being a high-risk for COVID-19 transmission. 

The province suggested meeting and greeting each other outdoors as much as possible and to be aware of the vaccination status of guests if gathering indoors.  

"If you are unvaccinated, you should not gather with family and friends this long weekend, as you are putting them at risk," the province's news release said.

Step out of vaccinopia and follow Manitoba 

"What is lacking is a policy environment and the condition that only political leaders can create by issuing more orders from the government. Public health can't act in a vacuum, they act in a policy framework," he said.

Muhajarine said the government should scale up rapid testing and bring in overdue measures. 

"We have to put in place limitations on gatherings, inside and outside, immediately. We have to extend the proof of vaccination policy to all indoor settings and particularly schools," he said.

Muhajarine said the government is suffering from vaccinopia: an inability to look beyond vaccines as a sole solution to the pandemic. 

"They have been stuck in vaccinopia since the middle of spring," he said.

All the modelling information that was needed to make decisions going forward was available to the health minister and the premier in the middle of June, Muhajarine said.

"They went against the data that they were given. They gambled with our health-care system, with the 88 people who lost their lives in September alone. They took a gamble and I'd say they've lost," he said.

Muhajarine said Manitoba is also governed by a conservative party but being more vigilant.

Manitoba has a slightly larger population than Saskatchewan but unlike Saskatchewan's government, Manitoba went beyond asking its residents to do the right thing, he said.

Early in June, Manitoba launched a vaccine lottery system which was followed by a late-August announcement asking all government workers to be fully vaccinated by the end of October. Manitoba also implemented a vaccine mandate on Sept. 3, a month ahead of Saskatchewan. 

Manitoba brought in rules for unvaccinated people on Tuesday that include private indoor gatherings being restricted to two households if any person at the gathering has chosen not to get vaccinated.

Only 10 people will be allowed to gather outdoors on private property if any attendee is unvaccinated. In indoor public spaces, only 25 people or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is lower, will be allowed if anyone in attendance is not vaccinate. For indoor faith-based gatherings that don't require proof of vaccination, capacity will be reduced to 25 people or 33 per cent capacity, whichever is greater. 

"If Manitoba is having a different experience compared to what we're having right now, we could do that too and we need to do that," Muhajarine said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pratyush Dayal is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Tyee. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from UBC and can be reached at pratyush.dayal@cbc.ca Twitter: @Pratyush_Dayal_

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