REGINA — As Saskatchewan residents prepare for the incoming proof of vaccination policy coming on Friday, public health officials are warning the province that unvaccinated individuals are still the most at-risk demographic.
Health Minister Paul Merriman held a press conference on Wednesday to address the rising pressures on Sasaktchewan’s health system, noted to be his first public appearance in over a month.
Merriman said that the continued pressure on hospitals due to COVID-19 is being driven by unvaccinated individuals.
Hospitalizations hit a peak high yesterday, with over 300 patients currently admitted due to COVID symptoms and more than 60 in ICU care — which Merriman said is more than 85 per cent of the province’s ICU capacity.
“Those who choose to remain unvaccinated, you are prolonging this pandemic,” said Merriman, during his opening remarks.
Data released by the Saskatchewan Health Authority today said that over 80 per cent of the province’s new positive cases are in unvaccinated individuals.
The average length of ICU stay is also being reported as two and a half times longer for unvaccinated COVID patients, at a median of 7.6 days.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said that cases are appearing in an increasingly younger demographic than before, largely age 40 and under, and younger people are still susceptible to serious health complications due to COVID.
Shahab described the province’s situation as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and urged all residents to make sure they get both doses as soon as possible.
“It's unfortunate, but this is the time now where if you’re unvaccinated, you need to stop going to other people's houses or non essential spaces,” said Shahab. “And no one wants to say to a family member or friend, ‘you’re not welcome here because you’re not vaccinated,’ but I think that’s where we are.”
Shahab also warned that current predictions show case numbers will continue to be high, and residents should prepare for another fall and winter of worrying about COVID transmission.
“We will not only not have Thanksgiving at this rate, but we will likely not have Christmas and New Year’s at this rate [of transmission.] It will be a fall and winter of misery,” said Shahab. “If things don’t change, maybe other public health orders may be required.”
Lockdown measures, like a public health order restricting gatherings outside the household, were not announced today, but Shahab said that the idea is not off the table.
Merriman once again described lockdown orders as a stop-gap measure, and reiterated that vaccination uptake is the most effective long-term solution in the province’s toolbox.
Merriman said that he has been in touch with federal ministers to request aid, including the provision of a limited supply of monoclonal antibody treatments for patients, but that the ministry doesn’t feel it needs external support for healthcare capacity at this time.
“We’re hoping that this combination of a vaccine push, restrictions on people that are unvaccinated, and other healthcare measures will bring numbers down,” said Merriman.
SHA redeployment is fully underway, with the province’s current trajectory of COVID cases anticipating a need for between 400 and 500 full-time staff for both acute and ICU capacity.
Approximately 64 health care workers have already been redeployed to ICU, and the SHA said it is aiming to provide 340 staff members to contact tracing efforts and 150 to testing.
“The challenge remains that the pool of those able and skilled in the right areas is finite,” said SHA executive director of infrastructure management Derek Miller. “We know being asked to move to these areas is causing stress and anxiety for our staff. We are so appreciative of their commitment and ongoing sacrifice.”
In response to criticisms about the province’s response to the fourth wave, Merriman said he stands by decisions made by the province in the past, which he said were made situationally using the information available at the time.
“I want to make sure that I convey to people that do take this extremely seriously,” said Merriman. “Everything that happens in the healthcare system is my responsibility.”
The health minister has faced criticism over the past few weeks, with both the opposition and other community leaders calling for his resignation.