Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman says there are signs the province is entering its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the provincial government is not prepared to mandate vaccinations.
Doing so would infringe on “people’s personal rights,” Merriman said in a news conference at the legislative assembly on Wednesday, following pressure from the Opposition to mandate vaccines among some groups, including health-care workers.
“I don’t know why it has to be a government mandate,” Merriman said. “If it’s government mandated, it changes the factor of the government telling you what to do versus you making a choice to go get it. If people don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s their choice.”
Merriman said there’s a small percentage of people that “just will not get vaccinated” and that incentives used in other provinces haven’t been shown to improve vaccination numbers. Instead, the province has recently hosted vaccine clinics at Saskatchewan Roughrider games and festivals, he said.
“I think everybody should go and get vaccinated. I mean, that’s the end of the story really for me, is people need to go and get vaccinated.”
Those refusing to do so are not making an informed choice, he said.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation that’s been floating around about vaccines for a very long time,” Merriman said.
Saskatchewan has the second-lowest single-dose vaccination rate among all provinces at 64.25 per cent, and the lowest percentage of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at 56.84 per cent, according to Health Canada.
Merriman’s appearance came after eight straight days in which more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 were announced in the province. Just moments before his appearance, the province announced 216 new cases of the disease, bringing the province’s seven-day average of daily new cases to 172.
If it’s government mandated, it changes the factor of the government telling you what to do versus you making a choice to go get it. If people don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s their choice.– Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman on COVID-19 mandates
The news conference also came one day after Ryan Meili, the leader of the Opposition Saskatchewan NDP, called on Merriman and Premier Scott Moe to “come out of hiding.” Meili accused Merriman and Moe of being largely absent from public view as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in recent weeks.
While the Saskatchewan Health Authority has recently held some media briefings — including one on Tuesday to address a COVID-19 lab error that resulted in 206 false-positives — the Saskatchewan government had not held a COVID-19 news conference since July 7, which ended with Moe and chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab shaking hands.
“The premier shook Dr. Shahab’s hand and basically said to the province, ‘You’re on your own. We’re not showing up anymore,'” Meili said.
Merriman said there are currently no discussions about bringing back regular COVID-19 briefings.
Meili resumed his attacks following Merriman’s news conference, saying that Merriman has a “complete lack of understanding” of his job.
Meili said the government should be requiring health-care workers, teachers and those who work with vulnerable people to get vaccinated. He said the same should apply to people attending large events like Riders games and concerts.
He also called on the province to release figures showing how many children under 12 have COVID-19 and are in hospital.
19 infected people in ICU
Merriman said the government is paying close attention to COVID-19 hospitalization figures. Currently there are 19 people with COVID-19 under intensive care, he said.
While the province is seeing higher transmission of COVID-19 among people aged 19 and younger, they are being affected in a milder way and “not ending up in the hospital,” Merriman said
The minister acknowledged recent pressures on health staff, some of whom are taking “well-deserved time off.”
Merriman also addressed the COVID-19 lab error announced on Tuesday, saying that it was especially unfortunate that it affected residents of the Extendicare Parkside nursing home in Regina, which experienced a COVID-19 outbreak last winter that killed 39 people.
“It’s very traumatizing if you get a false lab result on anything,” Merriman said.
Doctor urges indoor masking
The province has said it currently has no plans to implement province-wide restrictions or vaccination mandates.
On Tuesday, in a letter to First Nations in the province, Indigenous Services Canada’s medical health officer for Saskatchewan warned that the delta variant is being spread through gatherings like sporting events, family reunion and summer camps.
Besides strongly encouraging everyone aged 12 and older to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Dr. Ibrahim Kahn also called on everyone to wear masks indoors or where physical distancing is not possible.
“The more these public health measures are followed, the less likely our health staff will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases,” Kahn wrote.