After initially leading the nation in vaccination rates, Saskatchewan has fallen to the back of the line when it comes to putting shots in the arms of its residents.
According to data from CBC’s vaccine tracker Saskatchewan has the lowest vaccination rate among all provinces with about 60 per cent of its cumulative population receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Similar data from the Government of Canada also shows Saskatchewan falls behind other provinces and the national average.
Despite missing the province’s own set target to reopen, Saskatchewan is forging ahead with a full reopening including the removal of the province’s masking order on July 11.
“It’s an exciting time in Saskatchewan. We’re not finished yet, there’s still some work to do, but I think [it’s] a time for us to pause and be very proud of what we have achieved,” Premier Scott Moe told reporters Monday.
Saskatoon epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine told CBC’s Saskatoon Morning that the premier and minister of health “have a bit of an obsession with dates on a calendar” and that it’s too soon to lift the masking order as the delta variant threatens Canada’s return to normal.
“Lifting a mask mandate is not necessary,” Muhajarine said. “It goes against the public health principles that we have in this pandemic.”
Muhajarine said the mask mandate should remain in place until 75 to 80 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population is fully immunized against COVID-19.
Delta variant on the rise
As of Tuesday, Saskatchewan confirmed 20 additional cases of the delta virus, bringing the province’s total to 125
A week earlier, there had been 68 cases. The majority of the variant cases remain in Regina.
The delta variant is believed to be more transmissible than previous strains of COVID-19.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns, and the main unknown is we don’t know what’s going to happen with delta,” Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease physician with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said on CBC’s The Morning Edition.
11:30Dr. Alex Wong on Saskatchewan’s July 11 date to lift all COVID-19 restrictions
In the U.K., the variant went from barely being present to becoming the dominant strain within six weeks, which worries epidemiologists in Saskatchewan.
“My hope is that the delta variant does not take hold in this province. We can not actually serve people with just only hope, we have to have action to back it up,” Muhajarine said.
About 70 per cent of Saskatchewan’s adult population has received its first dose, a number Moe is confident will increase in the coming weeks before reopening.
The premier often mentions the return of the Saskatchewan Roughriders to Mosaic Stadium as an incentive to convince those who haven’t gotten their shot yet to do so, and to serve as a reminder of what normal used to feel like.
But Muhajarine said it does the opposite.
“Lifting the mask mandate is actually counter to getting people vaccine doses, and that is what we have found,” said Muhajarine who did research on the study Social Contours and COVID-19 with the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit.
“Not wearing a mask and hesitating to get a vaccine shot goes hand in hand.”
Push to increase second doses
Cases are expected to decrease throughout the summer, but the delta variant is likely to fuel a new wave in the fall, said Wong.
“It’s going to spread and specifically it’s going to really make our unvaccinated populations vulnerable, and that’s where we’re gonna see our outbreaks,” Wong said.
He said people who get their second shot will be protected from the delta variant, and that masks will continue to play an “easy, cheap and simple” part in mitigating the spread of the virus.
“I would personally feel much more comfortable if we had messaging from our policy makers and leaders around the fact this is about being cautious,” Wong said in regards to reopening on July 11.
“Being positive, being optimistic, but at the same time saying ‘You know what, the pandemic isn’t over, the virus is here.'”