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Saskatchewan has become the first province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 restrictions as it moves to treat the virus like a common respiratory illness.

The Saskatchewan Party government on Monday removed its two remaining pandemic health orders, which included mandatory masking in indoor public places and a requirement to self-isolate for five days if positive for the infection.

The province scrapped its vaccine passports on Feb. 14.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Chief Medical Health Officer, told The Canadian Press residents should be optimistic, but added that people who have not had a vaccine booster shot should get one.

“Booster shots are extremely protective against hospitalizations,” Dr. Shahab said. “The best thing we can do for ourselves, and reduce pressure in the health care system, is to get boosted.”

About half of Saskatchewan adults have received a booster.

Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease specialist in Regina, said people who had two doses of vaccine as of five months ago, but didn’t get boosted, have no functional protection against the Omicron variant.

But if people continue to wear masks in public places, and get boosted, “the likelihood of having a bad outcome from COVID or even getting COVID in the first place is truly minimal,” Dr. Wong said. “You can just go about living day to day without having to worry about what everyone else is doing around you.”

The virus remains in communities throughout the province despite the Omicron wave peaking one to two weeks ago, Dr. Shahab said.

He estimated that about 20 per cent of the population was exposed in the last wave – about one out of every four households.

Another 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the population could be exposed over the next few weeks and months, he said.

“We’re not going back to 2019. It’s just never going to happen, because COVID is not going to go away,” Dr. Wong said. “That’s not fearmongering ... that’s just the reality of where we’re at, so trying to find ways that we can all live together and do things in ways that are safe and responsible remains the most critically important.”

The latest data from the Ministry of Health show COVID-19 hospitalizations have started to decline after peaking the week before last. As of last Wednesday, there were 372 people in hospital with the infection, including 27 in intensive care.

“It will take four to six weeks to have hospitalizations come down to a really low level,” Dr. Shahab said.

Saskatchewan’s test positivity rate is 14 per cent, but Dr. Shahab said there is a chance of a resurgence in cases now that restrictions have been lifted.

He emphasized that will depend on the rate of booster shots and the presence of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, which is more transmissible but may not be more severe.

Results from PCR tests done in labs indicate about 5 per cent to 7 per cent of people have been positive for the subvariant, he said, but added it’s not a big concern at this time.

Dr. Shahab is encouraging people to stick to what they have learned and to be considerate of those who are at high risk.

The province prefers to protect people through vaccinations and treatment with antiviral drugs instead of broad public health measures that affect mental health and the economy, he said.

“At least for the short term, [we’re] not relying so much on mandatory measures, but more on getting boosted, staying home if ill, self-testing if you have concerns or are gathering with those who are at high risk.

“Those things are going to be more important for the next few weeks and months.”

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