Here's where Sask. stands as it prepares to lift COVID-19 restrictions
REGINA -- Saskatchewan is preparing to move into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday.
The province is removing all public health measures, including the mask mandate and limits on large gatherings, which will pave the way for residents to live with the virus.
"It's important to remember that we needed to get to this phase eventually," Dr. Cory Neudorf, an epidemiology and community health professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said.
"We’re moving out of the extraordinary measures and we're getting more into more normal public health measures that we can still use to impact the pandemic as we try to get more back to normal."
Public health officials are confident Saskatchewan can reopen safely this summer with the COVID-19 vaccines providing a layer of protection.
"The risk remains and if anything is higher for people who choose to remain unvaccinated," Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said during Tuesday’s provincial update.
In June, Saskatchewan saw 80.8 per cent of its cases in people who were unvaccinated, while only 1.8 per cent came in people with two doses.
None of the province’s 21 intensive care unit admissions or 15 deaths were in fully vaccinated residents last month.
"It's really going to be predominantly a disease of persons who are unvaccinated at this point," Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease physician in Regina, told CTV News.
As of Thursday, 62.6 per cent of Saskatchewan residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The province has the lowest percentage of its eligible population with one dose in Canada at 71.4 per cent, while 51.9 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.
"We obviously need to continue to make as much effort as we can to increase vaccine uptake," Dr. Wong said. "We’ve kind of stalled out a little bit on first and second doses."
Saskatchewan saw a stretch of 25 days with less than 100 new cases per day end on Thursday when 113 cases were reported.
Before Thursday, the province also went 29 straight days with a provincial test positivity rate under five per cent.
Regina’s seven-day test positivity is 3.05 per cent, while Saskatoon sits at 1.30 per cent.
The central regions have combined for just six cases in the last seven days, while the entire south, outside of Regina, has reported 24 cases in the past seven days.
"The testing rate is still a bit of a concern," Dr. Neudorf said. "But as long as test positivity is staying low, even if the testing rates are going down, that could be still a sign that there's not as much disease being transmitted out there in the community."
Hospitalizations have stabilized across the province with 61 people in hospital, down from a third wave peak of 206 on Apr. 9. ICU admissions sit at 10 and there have been three deaths related to the virus since June 29.
"Vaccines have obviously dramatically changed the entire picture and have really sort of decoupled cases from hospitalizations and deaths, which isn't to say that there won't be hospitalizations and that there won't be deaths," Dr. Wong said.
The virus is still spreading in the province with 139 new Delta variant cases reported this week, which is a 67 per cent increase over the past seven days.
An outbreak has also been declared in Hatchet Lake Dene Nation with the Far North East region accounting for more than half of Thursday’s 113 new cases.
Dr. Wong said this is what COVID will look like moving forward.
"We're going to see sort of localized outbreaks in communities and amongst individuals who are either only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all," he said.
"The disease is fundamentally shifting to one which is going to effect mostly the unvaccinated."
When restrictions lift, businesses will still have the option of implementing their own mask and physical distancing requirements.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority announced on Thursday that it will still require masks. Screening and family presence measures will remain in place as well.
Dr. Neudorf said with children under 12 still unable to get vaccinated and portions of the population without a shot, staying vigilant will be key.
"It’s important for people to understand that, yes, we have an end to these extraordinary measures, but there are still precautions that we need to take and there are still going to be public health interventions," he said.
Dr. Neudorf added a continued focus on vaccinating the remain population as well as people continuing to get tested if symptomatic and isolating if necessary will be key over the next few months.