It’s been nearly a month since COVID restrictions in Saskatchewan were lifted completely, leading to what many considered a return to normal, but experts warn that Omicron’s BA.2 variant is a sign that the pandemic is not yet over.
BA.2 has become even more alarming due to the recent surge in cases in several countries and is believed to be behind the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan.
“This epidemic is far from over,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf, professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan who analyzed Saskatoon wastewater found a 66 percent increase in COVID-19 evidence in their most recent weekly samples. BA.2 accounted for 34.1 percent of the viral load in Saskatoon. In a study by Regina, BA.2 appeared in 37 percent of samples.
“With BA.2 on its way, this could also speed things up so that what could have been a shoulder or a late dip in this wave is now a second peak in many parts of Canada,” Neudorf said.
Neudorf said the emerging variant does not appear to be more dangerous than other Omicron strains, including the BA.1 strain most common during the recent wave of the pandemic, but appears to be more transmissible.
The situation has been made more complicated by the lack of restrictions in most Canadian provinces, he said, adding that the public perception of Omicron as being less dangerous downplays the severity of the virus.
“Although it is a little less severe, it is more transmissible. It leads to more cases so that the impact on hospitalization and mortality was very similar to a delta wave,” he said.
This applies to this new variant, which means people should be careful and it called for restrictions to be removed in February too early.
Preliminary data shows that the sub-variant can be about 30 percent more transmissible than the Omicron variant, according to Dr. Joseph Blondeau, a provincial microbiologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
In other countries, Blondeau said, the variant was following a similar path to previous Omicron strains in terms of virulence.
He said questions still swirl about whether the alternative could force another wave of COVID-19.
Blundeau speculated that an increase in deaths or hospitalizations would prompt the government to reimpose restrictions, but doubts that restrictions would return.
And he echoed Neudorf’s feeling that even with a less severe virus, transmissibility could still weigh on Saskatchewan hospitals.
Hospitals are working under severe strain due to the virus, especially in Saskatoon, with overcrowded emergency rooms, Tracy Zambori, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, said. She described it as a pressure cooker for nurses.
“Registered nurses have not stopped working for two and a half years,” Zambori said.
Zambori said that if the provincial government wants to get back to normal, a phrase Prime Minister Moe used when discussing ending public health mandates, she wants to see a plan to manage the virus in the long term, with nurses involved in discussing it.
For her, this will include addressing staff shortages and how the county will meet both COVID-19 and regular health care needs.
CBC News sent an inquiry about Amal Zambori to the regional health department for comment late Tuesday and is awaiting a response.
No human being has endless reserves of energy.Dennis Kendall, health policy expert and former physician
Zambori predicts that with a more transmissible variant, hospitalization rates will rise and put more pressure on nurses.
During the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) City Council, Dr. Johnmark Opondo said the presence of COVID-19 in the community is trending down but is stabilizing at very high levels.
He said that while the county is nearing the end of the pandemic, it has not yet arrived.
BA.2 accounts for about six percent of Omicron variants of concern, and the majority of confirmed cases are on the western border of Saskatchewan, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority Municipal Council on Thursday.
Unlike Omicron’s BA.1 variant, which “hit us like a flash,” Opondo said BA.2 appeared in clusters around the county.
Dennis Kindle, a health policy expert and retired physician, said the county government has made it difficult to understand the current epidemiological situation by not conveying updated information.
He relies on SHA’s city halls as “one of the few sources” for information about the epidemic in Saskatchewan.
Kendall also said he was aware of the pressures on hospitals and feared the county was depleting its human health care resources.
Kendall told Heather Morrison, CBC host Saskatoon morning.
“No human being has endless reserves of energy.”
Kindle said the county may need to reimpose concealment requirements if it seeks to “mitigate preventable harm and deaths,” though he does not expect restrictions to return.