The Saskatchewan government reported a seventh case of the COVID-19 coronavirus on Monday — a person in their 60s who had recently travelled to Arizona.
"The resident was tested in Regina and is currently in hospital due to unrelated medical issues," according to a provincial government release Monday afternoon.
The province saw a further increase in tests conducted over the weekend. By Sunday, 796 tests had been performed, compared to 524 by the end of the day Friday. Sixteen tests were pending as of the province's latest update.
There remains no evidence of community (non-travel-related) transmission in the province, but officials expect it to happen at some point, said Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical officer.
"We will see community transmission," Shahab said.
The province still plans to release the 2020-2021 provincial budget on Wednesday. Only MLAs, media and a limited number of staff will be on hand for what is normally a crowded event.
"The budget we have would be the same one as if it was delivered today," Moe said. "It will change. We know that. We'll be transparent with people about."
Schools to close by Friday
All Saskatchewan pre K-12 schools will close effective March 20 in response to the growing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the provincial government announced Monday morning.
"This may go on for some time," Moe warned.
Operations began winding down Monday.
"This means that parents who are able to keep children home should do so immediately, with no absence or grade impacts. Parents with limited childcare options have a window to plan for class suspensions," a news release from the province said.
"These measures apply to daycares that are co-located with schools, but do not apply to licensed daycare facilities outside of schools. Further measures regarding licensed daycare facilities are being considered and will be implemented at a later date."
Moe spoke alongside Shahab at a news conference Monday.
Asked if public backlash prompted Saskatchewan to finally close schools, Moe said evidence of community transmission in Alberta is what moved the dial.
Decisions need to be informed by medical advice, he said.
"They're not all going to be popular decisions, but we need to make the very best decision on behalf of the province," he said.
'We need to remain calm'
Moe said Saskatchewan residents should brace themselves for the virus' economic impact and asked residents to remain considerate while preparing.
"We don't believe coronavirus will cause shortages in our grocery stores. But hoarding most certainly will," Moe said.
"We need to remain calm."
Moe also applauded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's call for Canadians to stay home unless absolutely necessary and echoed the prime minister's language on Canadians who are currently outside the country.
"If you're a Saskatchewan resident travelling abroad, it's time for you to come home now and then self-isolate for two weeks."
"Enjoy your time with your family. Call it a staycation if you will," Moe said.
"Not only [should] we self-isolate after travel [from outside of Canada]," Shahab said. "But if you have any symptoms of fever or cough, you stay home. Don't visit people who are elderly or have symptoms in their homes."
Preparing for hospitalizations
As of Monday, Saskatchewan had reported seven cases of COVID-19: five presumptive, two confirmed.
None of those people have had to be hospitalized specifically because of the virus, according to the province.
In an update Monday, the province said there is no evidence of a rapid increase in local cases.
Dr. Susan Shaw, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's chief medical officer, was asked Monday about the province's readiness to take in COVID-19 patients who need intensive care.
"We have over 100 ICU beds available immediately," she said. "Most of them are occupied right now. But we do have plans in place to be able to surge up and make expansions of those services as well."
Visits to hospitals for families only
The government also announced new measures Monday to prevent the spread of the virus, including:
- Restricting visitors to long-term care homes, hospitals and group homes to family visiting for "compassionate reasons."
- Including churches and other faith-based organizations in the previously-announced ban (which took effect Monday) on gatherings of more than 250 in one room.
The province also released a link to a new online tool to help people determine whether they need to be tested online. An estimated 10,000 people have already used it, Moe said.
Shahab has previously stressed that only people who have recently travelled and who have symptoms, including respiratory and flu-like symptoms, should seek testing for COVID-19.
Province was pressured to close schools
K-12 schools in Saskatchewan were previously set to open Monday, but a ban on large crowds has come into effect and the provincial government hinted Sunday night that it may announce new measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Before Monday, parents and teachers had called on government and health officials to rethink the decision to keep schools open, given decisions to close schools in provinces like Alberta.
On Sunday, Shahab defended the decision to keep schools open, saying, "At this point, with the number of cases we have and the fact that they're all travel-related, we really don't think that there's any reason to close schools anywhere in the province at this time."
Many parents took to social media Sunday to say they'll be keeping their kids home.
By Sunday evening, Premier Scott Moe said the province was considering "a number" of preventative measures.
Sask. NDP leader Ryan Meili called on the government to follow the lead of other provinces and shut down schools.
"We can't be an island doing [things] differently than the rest of the country," Meili said on Monday. "We need to be thinking about how people are feeling right now."
At the same time, Meili urged parents to keep other factors in mind.
"If you are someone whose kids can stay home today, please do so, and please be thoughtful about how you do it as well. We want to make sure that seniors and other folks who are at risk don't wind up getting child care duties on top of them and putting folks at risk.
"It's a complicated situation."
"Dr. Shahab still tells us it's safe to send your kids to school," Health Minister Jim Reiter countered the same morning.
Reiter reiterated what Shahab said on Sunday: that evidence such as community transmission — a new case of COVID-19 not linked to travel — might trigger a rethink on schools.
The decision on whether kids go to school ultimately lies with parents, Reiter said.
"Obviously if somebody is very concerned and they want to keep their kids at home, that's certainly their decision," he said.
Conflicting advice for health care workers on staying home
CBC News has obtained a memo sent to Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) workers on Sunday that conflicted with the advice given to the general public the same day by Shahab.
In a news release accompanying Shahab's latest update on the virus Sunday, the province stated, "All travellers returning from international destinations, including the United States, need to self-isolate and monitor their health for 14 days upon return. Members of the public who have travelled outside the province in the previous 14 days should not visit hospitals or long-term care facilities." (bold emphasis added)
But in the memo circulated to SHA staff on Sunday, the health authority said if a health worker returned from travelling from anywhere outside of Canada before Monday, did not have symptoms and were not told to self-isolate, "then you are able to work your regularly scheduled shifts."
The memo went on to say that health workers who returned to Canada from international travel on or after Monday need to self-isolate for the duration of 14 days.
That appeared to create a window where health workers who had travelled internationally were allowed to go to work on Sunday.
In a statement emailed Monday, the health ministry said there will be time when restrictions on the general public need to be different than those for health care workers.
"The Public Health Agency of Canada has given us some guidance on the need to apply different criteria for health care workers given their role in providing an essential service. We will be continuing to work with PHAC further on how we should be applying these restrictions to health care workers."
Details on crowd ban
Shahab laid out the rules for the ban on mass gatherings last week.
As of Monday, a group of more than 250 people in one room is not allowed, he said. It's not clear if that covers outdoor gatherings. CBC News has asked the health ministry for clarity.
That doesn't include buildings where people are spread out, such as offices, schools and universities.
The University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan have cancelled classes as their teachers prepare to instruct their students remotely.
The ban also extends to gatherings of over 50 people with speakers or attendees who have travelled internationally in the last 14 days take place.
SaskTel waives data overage fees
SaskTel, a Crown corporation, announced Monday morning it will waive all data overage fees for SaskTel Wireless and fusion Internet customers who are working from home and remotely.
The company will also stop charging customers for the rest of the month, beginning Tuesday.
"SaskTel will also be providing its maxTV and maxTV Stream customers with access to additional news and entertainment channels to help them keep them informed," the company said in its release. Those channels include CTV News Channel (16/316) and CBC News Network (15/315).