New research suggests Saskatchewan has the least stringent COVID-19 measures among Canadian provinces and the highest case rate per capita.
The Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation, a Montreal-based think-tank within the Institute for Research on Public Policy, tracked 12 different policies provinces put in place to control the spread of the virus.
They teamed up with Oxford University’s COVID-19 government response tracker to compare their overall stringency, including gathering sizes, masks and travel restrictions.
The team found most provinces took the same approach, by entering a full lockdown when the pandemic first emerged last spring. By summer, the provinces were opening up again.
“When the second wave hit in the fall, that’s where we saw the most differences between provinces,” said Charles Breton, executive director of Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation and co-author of the research.
“Some provinces took approaches that other provinces did not take, or some provinces imitated some of the moves made by provinces earlier.”
For example, Breton said Saskatchewan was the only jurisdiction in Canada to not enforce a mask mandate in schools, leaving the decision up to divisions.
The team then compiled a snapshot of how provincial measures varied one year into the pandemic, and how these measures compared to the evolution of COVID-19 cases.
The research showed that as of March 11, Saskatchewan had the highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 and the second least stringent measures compared to the rest of the country.
However, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Health Paul Merriman said, during Thursday’s update on COVID-19, that the public health measures at this time are sufficient.
“That could change in either direction depending on what our numbers are and what variants of concerns are in Regina,” Merriman said.
“But right now we feel the numbers are starting to stabilize across the province, and I really feel the people of Saskatchewan, and certainly Regina, will comply with public health orders as they have in the past.”
Low stringency linked to high cases
Dr. Cory Neudorf, public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, said there is a relationship between the province’s stringency and its COVID-19 cases.
“To be fair, the evidence isn’t necessarily suggesting we have to go back to do exactly the same thing we did last year,” Neudorf said.
“You can see from other provinces who manage to get their second wave down faster, they’re the ones who responded with shorter-term, circuit breaker kinds of lockdowns for a few weeks.”
He said Saskatchewan’s cases plateaued at a higher rate during the winter, while other provinces experienced a higher drop-off in cases.
“It’s very important to try to use the evidence to guide your interventions and to not let things be at a high level so that when unexpected things happen — like new variants of concerns taking hold in a province — you’re able to respond more quickly when things get out of control,” Neudorf said.
As of Monday, Saskatchewan had the highest rate of cases of COVID-19 in Canada, averaging 87 cases per 100,000 people. The national rate is 62 cases per 100,000 people.
Size of third wave depends on interventions
With variants of concern continuing to spread in Saskatchewan, and older populations getting vaccinated against the virus, Neudorf said the province will likely see an increase of hospitalizations and deaths within younger age groups.
“People seem to have this false dichotomy that it’s only seniors or the elderly in hospitals or dying, and therefore if we immunize them we aren’t going to see those anymore,” Neudorf said.
“The risk isn’t zero for the next age group down, or the middle-aged or younger people.”
Neudorf said stringent measures can prevent a third wave from taking over, resulting in less stress on the health-care system.
“How big that wave gets is determined by two factors. One is the stringency of interventions that governments put in place as rules,” Neudorf said. “The other is how well people adhere to those interventions or decide to take matters into their own hands, by just looking at the data.”
Citing variants of concern, Regina school divisions are moving classes online, Regina city council moved in-person meetings to virtual ones, and the RCMP Heritage Centre closed their doors for several weeks.
“The real issue is how do you make the balance, and the best way to do that is not just give suggestions, but give firm rules that are enforced,” Neudorf said.
“But also make sure there’s compensation to people who had to temporarily stop working or businesses that are affected. If we do that it’s more likely we’ll be able to succeed, and let the vaccine program do its work.”