A northern resident in his or her 60s with COVID-19 has died, bringing Saskatchewan’s death toll to seven.
The news came on a day when the Ministry of Health also reported 21 new cases, following a hopeful dip in new infections reported over the Victoria Day long weekend.
Provincial chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab declined to reveal more details about the deceased, citing privacy reasons, but said the fatality is a reminder for people to continue to take precautions, even as some business and health services begin to resume.
“This again is a reminder that COVID-19 is very much in Saskatchewan,” Shahab said.
Fifteen of the new cases are in the far north, nine in La Loche and five in Beauval; four were in the north and the last was in the former Saskatoon Health Region.
Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said he was “frankly not surprised” by the bump in cases, given ongoing testing and tracing efforts in the province’s northwest.
“I think that people need to realize that this is going to be our norm for a month,” Livingstone said. “We see days of one (new reported case), we will see days of two, but we are going to see case numbers like this come up and down.”
He said he expected door-to-door COVID-19 testing in La Loche, the epicentre of the outbreak in the northwest, to be complete by the end of Wednesday.
Overall, he said the province’s effective reproductive number — the number of people a person with COVID-19 is likely to infect, given current interventions — was at 0.62 on Wednesday. A number below 1 indicates the virus is being effectively managed, Livingstone said, adding that the SHA has worked to incorporate more real-time data into its calculation of that figure.
He also cautioned that the number changes rapidly as new data comes in, and is not the same in every region. In the far north, it’s declining but still sits at 1.87.
Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he’s generally optimistic about the direction of Saskatchewan’s epidemiological curve, but joined health officials in urging continued vigilance.
“We should not relax and think ‘We’ve got this, we’re done,’ ” he said.
Starting on Monday, the SHA says it will expand its already-broad COVID-19 testing eligibility criteria to include anyone working outside their home, patients admitted to an acute care hospital for more than 24 hours, people who may be vulnerable to the virus — such as cancer patients or the homeless — and health care workers looking after immunocompromised patients.
The SHA said on-site testing will also be available for people working in “high volume” industrial settings, like factories, but Livingstone acknowledged the logistics of how that will be implemented are not yet decided.
Outbreaks in facilities like the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., have been associated with significant COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada and the United States.
The number of new tests conducted every day continues to rest well below Premier Scott Moe’s previously stated target of 1,500; only 345 were reported on Wednesday, although the SHA has said it has capacity to do more.
Livingstone denied that there was any “target” for a total number of tests, noting Saskatchewan already offered COVID-19 testing to anyone with symptoms.
“If you have the sniffles, you can go in for COVID testing,” Livingstone said.
Tuesday marked both the start of the second phase of the province’s economic reopening plan and the first phase of the SHA’s timeline to gradually resume health services put on hold by the pandemic.
Livingstone cautioned it will be a highly different experience than most Saskatchewan residents are used to because of the stringent measures health care providers are taking to prevent possible transmission.
“Just because things are back does not mean we are back to normal,” he said.
A date for the second phase of the SHA’s plan, which would include specialty clinics like dermatologists, has not been set.
The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan now sits at 620, of which 120 are considered active. Four people are in hospital in Saskatoon, three of them in intensive care. To date, 45,591 tests for COVID-19 have been conducted in the province.