New Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) modelling charts out a path to a quadrupling of COVID-19 patients in intensive care within weeks under a business-as-usual scenario.
The modelling, shared with physicians on Thursday, takes into account the more transmissible U.K. variant now spreading in Regina and beyond, as well as the decision to boost private gathering limits that went into effect last week.
Without any changes to measures, the model foresees a steady increase in COVID-19 patients in ICU from roughly 30 this Friday to as much as 120 on May 24. They could exceed 140 in June. That assumes residents continue most current behaviour, but also increase private gatherings.
On March 9, the province announced that “bubbles” could grow to encompass up to 10 people from three different households. In addition, as of Friday, worship services can accommodate up to 30 per cent of capacity or 150 people, whichever amount is lower — except in Regina due to increasing variant transmission.
However, a “slowdown” for five to six weeks would be just sufficient to return the ICU numbers to the current level after a spike to 60 patients, according to the modelling. The slowdown would involve no private gatherings, a 60 per cent reduction in public gatherings and 25 per cent of the workforce working from home.
A “shutdown” with a more severe reduction in public gatherings and online schooling would relieve the ICUs more quickly, eventually emptying them out of COVID-19 patients. After that, vaccination is anticipated to reduce admissions.
The SHA has cautioned that its modelling is not intended to forecast the future, but to lay out alternative scenarios stemming from different choices officials and residents could make.
Statistics from Friday’s provincial update put COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan ICUs at 27, and the slides show that COVID-19 is already putting pressure on major hospitals. Counts from Wednesday afternoon put ICUs at St. Paul’s Hospital and Royal University Hospital overcapacity, while Regina General Hospital is at capacity. In all three cases, roughly half of ICU patients had tested positive for COVID-19.
Health Minister Paul Merriman said modelling “is one of the many tools that is used to determine the level of our public health measures, and does not take our current vaccination totals into account.”
He said he relies on real-time data on case and hospitalization rates, contact tracing investigations and epidemiology data, all carefully compiled by his officials. He called the spike in variant cases in Regina “particularly concerning.”
Cory Neudorf, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine, said the steady upward trend in the modelling is not surprising.
“If they stick with what we’ve got right now,” he said, referring to restrictions, “then, yes, we’ll be seeing what’s projected here and maybe even slightly worse.”
He’s skeptical that vaccines will come fast enough to prevent ICUs from filling up in the coming weeks. Protection for seniors may not compensate for a surge in cases among younger age groups, including those in middle age. Besides, it takes about two weeks for immunity to kick in.
Neudorf agrees that something like the “slowdown” envisioned in the model will likely be necessary to prevent a spike in ICUs.
“To minimize the chance of a big third wave and allow the chance for vaccines to do what we want them to do, it’s going to require tougher measures than what we have right now in all likelihood — it’s all a game of probabilities,” he said.
“We’re almost at the finish line here. Let’s not trip.”
The modelling also reveals that the seven-day rolling average for Saskatchewan’s effective reproductive number is 1.4. That implies that case numbers will continue to mount as infected people infect more than one healthy person on average. The number of undiagnosed infectious individuals are now estimated at more than 7,700.
The SHA’s presentation said much of the province may be feeling a “false sense of security.” But in Regina, it’s a different story, with a 57 spike in average ICU numbers in just one week.
NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the new modelling numbers point to the potential for an “unsustainable and unacceptable increase in the number of people who are in our ICUs.”
Though he did not explicitly call for either the slowdown measures detailed in the slides, he noted that epidemiologists are supporting new public health measures, rather than relaxation.
The government did not directly answer a question about whether Merriman, or Premier Scott Moe, had seen similar modelling before loosening private gathering restrictions last week. But Meili finds it tough to imagine that they hadn’t.
“He has the numbers in front of him,” Meili said of Moe. “He knows exactly where the cases are, he knows exactly what the modelling shows. He’s known it for weeks, and he is not willing to do his goddamn job.
“This is costing people their lives and I’m getting pretty sick of watching this guy be so bad at protecting anything that matters in Saskatchewan.”