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Dr. Saqib Shahab, chief medical health officer in Saskatchewan, speaks at a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina on March 18, 2020.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says health care services may be interrupted in the weeks ahead when a tide of COVID-19 hospitalizations and absenteeism among workers is expected to hit.

Derek Miller, the authority’s interim chief operating officer, says health teams are putting together plans for service slowdowns that could affect surgeries.

In the first week of January, there were 1,000 health care employees off the job because they were either sick with COVID-19 or had to take time off to care for a child, Mr. Miller says. Since then, absenteeism has increased and about 17 per cent of the health authority’s work force is away.

“That does have an impact across our services,” Mr. Miller said Tuesday.

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Managers are being redeployed to duties on the hospital floor, to care for people, or to offer other support, he added.

On the weekend, two Saskatoon hospitals reached capacity and 39 people were waiting for a bed at one point. That prompted the health authority to send out a memo to physicians to re-evaluate all admissions.

Omicron is also affecting outpatient care for people needing services that don’t require hospitalizations.

“It has had an impact in terms of how we’re able to deliver services, but we’re also seeing it on the patient side, cancellations of different outpatient services due to patients becoming positive or having to isolate,” Mr. Miller said.

The province’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the public needs to prepare for a rise in hospitalizations when the Omicron wave peaks in two to four weeks.

“Increased booster uptake will decrease the pressure on hospitalizations during our Omicron wave,” Dr. Shahab said. But he added that people need to minimize non-essential gatherings and travel. Saskatchewan is the only jurisdiction in Canada without restrictions on gathering sizes.

About 44 per cent of eligible adults have received their booster dose to date.

Dr. Shahab said other treatments will also help reduce hospitalizations, including a new COVID-19 antiviral drug made by Pfizer. The oral pill approved by Health Canada is recommended for people who test positive and who are at high risk of severe outcomes, including hospitalization or death.

Saskatchewan is expecting a shipment this week, the government said in a news release.

Hospitalizations have increased 80 per cent in the last month. Some 189 patients are currently admitted, 18 of them in intensive care.

Dr. Shahab said Saskatchewan is weeks behind the Omicron wave in other provinces, so that has allowed some insight into what’s to come.

He said hospitalizations in coming weeks could reach the same levels seen in previous waves, given that the Omicron variant is five to 10 times more transmissible than Delta and other provinces have been taking in five times more COVID-19 patients than before.

During Saskatchewan’s Delta wave last fall, the number of infected people in hospital peaked at 356.

There will be fewer patients in intensive care this time, Dr. Shahab said, but there will still be pressure on health care services. “We have to prepare for that.”

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