A public health doctor is warning that Saskatchewan’s leaders aren’t taking the latest surge in COVID-19 cases seriously enough, and have only a short window to get it under control.
“The reality is that if you don’t take the right measures, the biology, the science of how the infectious disease spreads will catch up to you in two or three weeks time, and the government will be scrambling, rather than being able to proactively address it and show leadership,” said Dr. Anne Huang, who previously served as a deputy medical health officer for the province.
She said Premier Scott Moe and health officials should consider mandatory masks, stricter lockdowns and maybe even a rollback of some elements in Saskatchewan’s reopening plan within affected regions.
“It’s absolutely vital that officials can demonstrate, by mid-August, that the rising trend has been reversed,” she explained. “Otherwise, we are in real danger going into the fall.”
At 307, Saskatchewan now has more active cases of COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic. There have been 239 new cases reported since July 22, with most connected to Hutterite colonies in the south and central regions of the province.
But a large number of cases cannot be traced to any known source. Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, confirmed on Monday that there are now five to 10 cases per day in the general community. That has Huang worried that the outbreaks are not being contained.
“What we’ve seen right now is the initial cluster in Hutterite communities has certainly spilled into the general population,” she said.
“That tells me there’s a lot more ongoing community transmission now than a month ago,” she added, “and that suggests the approach and response taken so far by the health authority and officials have not adequately controlled the outbreak.”
But provincial authorities didn’t announce any new public health measures on Monday, when they reported 31 new cases of COVID-19, including nine outside of the colonies. Premier Scott Moe agreed that the outbreaks are “very serious,” though he is relying on “strong voluntary compliance” to get them under control.
He noted that the high numbers in recent days are not related to the loosening of restrictions under the province’s Re-Open Saskatchewan plan, and, in particular, have little connection to businesses opening their doors.
Moe said his government is not now at the point of implementing a mandatory masking policy, though he suggested that would come before any move to reintroduce business restrictions.
“There might be a point in time, either on a regional basis or maybe even province wide, where we will have to go to wearing masks as a mandatory measure,” he said. “I would far sooner want to have that conversation prior to shutting down sectors of our economy.”
Huang called mandatory indoor masking the “bare minimum” of what the province should do. She also suggested a more coordinated approach on travel restrictions. At this point, though, she believes it would have to go far beyond the colonies.
“If the surrounding community members are still traveling, we are not going to be able to get the transmission stopped,” she said.
In Huang’s view, limiting travel within the southwest and west central regions would be “prudent.”
“Even a two-week lowering of our current level of travel and interaction within that entire area will really make a difference,” she said.
Huang agreed with Moe that masking could be an alternative to putting business restrictions back into place. “It’s worth testing out that option versus closing the businesses down entirely,” she said.
But she noted that some activities, like restaurant dining, might have to change in the most affected areas. That could include limiting eat-in restaurant service to only outdoor patios.
Huang said the province needs to move fast to ensure a safe school reopening in September.
“If we want to be able to allow schools to be open with as low of a risk as possible, the best way to do that is to maintain as low of a community transmission as possible,” she said.
“And the time to do it is now.”