'Planning for what ifs:' Saskatchewan projects COVID cases could surpass 400,000

REGINA — Health officials in Saskatchewan report that between 3,000 and 8,300 people could die in the province from COVID-19.

Projections released Wednesday say there could be between 153,000 and 408,000 cases of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

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"We are luckily right now at the beginning. It's staying flat for now and we remain cautiously optimistic that this is what we hope to see continue," chief health officer Dr. Susan Shaw said Wednesday. "However, we have a responsibility to be planning for what ifs."

The province reported 11 new cases of COVID-19 for a total so far of 271, including three deaths.

"I wake up each and every morning waiting for the numbers to come in and just praying that there isn't a death today," Premier Scott Moe said. "That's what I do every morning."

He said case numbers over recent days have looked good and while he's not considering introducing any more restrictions, he's not thinking about lifting any either.

Moe said unemployment in the province looks grim. His government is to announce a Saskatchewan-first resource and recovery plan Thursday to help those affected by business shutdowns to slow the spread of the virus.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority released a number of scenarios on Wednesday based on factors such as current social distancing measures, testing and how many people one ill person could infect.

Dr. Jenny Basran, the health authority's senior medical information officer, said it's too early to know which situation Saskatchewan is in. She said that will depend on how well people comply with restrictions on physical interaction.

The health authority said measures to slow the spread of the virus have made a difference, and the most important thing people can do in the weeks and months ahead is to continue to isolate themselves and to wash their hands.

Dr. Julie Kryzanowski, the authority's senior medical health officer, said the province's measures must be sustained to be effective.

It's too soon for accurate timelines on how long physical distancing measures will need to stay in place, when cases may peak or over what time the projected death toll could occur, said officials.

"While it's too early to know exactly what's going to happen next, we do know based on what the Public Health Agency of Canada, what the premier and what the prime minister have said: that we should anticipate for weeks to months," Shaw said.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said modelling suggests his province's social-distancing restrictions won't be relaxed until the end of May. Shaw said Alberta is ahead of Saskatchewan in terms of spread.

"In a few more weeks, as we get to the same point in the data and experience, we'll have more ability to offer some input into what that could look like," she said.

Moe said contact tracing and testing are crucial in controlling the spread of COVID-19, and will be key in deciding how and when to ease some restrictions and reboot the economy.

But he said those considerations won't start for several more weeks.

Moe said he's asked health officials to ensure that 1,000 lab tests are processed daily as soon as possible. He'd like to see that bumped up to 1,500 per day by the end of April, depending on supplies.

Planning for a potential surge of cases, the health authority says it has identified 20 of the province's 65 hospitals that would be designated as COVID-19 facilities, if required.

It also expects 100 ventilators that have been ordered will be delivered in the next two to three weeks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2020

Note to readers: This is a corrected story; a previous version attributed a quote to Kryzanowski.

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