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Saskatchewan is exploring the possibility of sending COVID-19 patients to Manitoba, a day after it announced plans to send those sick with the virus to Ontario.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said Thursday that Saskatchewan officials have reached out to its neighbouring province to start a discussion.

The province has been running out of intensive care unit space and staff as mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelm the health-care system.

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Saskatchewan has had the highest daily rate of COVID-19 infections of any province for several weeks.

Opinion: The Prairies are showing Canada what a COVID-19 disaster looks like

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan said it was preparing air ambulance flights to Ontario and that they could happen this week.

The head of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Scott Livingstone, said it is easier to send patients out of province than to bring in staff from the military, Canadian Red Cross or other provinces.

“From a true overall critical care capacity, the number of staff that’s required to staff a bed – it doesn’t make sense to bring in those teams to the province. It makes a lot more sense to send (patients) out as a very last resort,” Livingstone said.

However, the health authority’s executive director,John Ash, told a town-hall meeting of physicians last week that sending COVID-19 patients out of province could result in deaths. The comment was repeated Thursday by Dr. Hassan Masri, a Saskatoon-based intensive care physician.

“This is a very delicate process and extremely difficult. Many people may even pass away in the process, as has happened in other provinces,” Masri said.

“It is not a situation that is as easy as putting someone on a plane and sending them to a different province. And it will take a lot of planning and may even have casualty in the process.

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“Resources on an airplane – both human and equipment recourses – are not the same that are available in the hospital.”

Merriman and Livingstone said moving patients remains the easiest option.

“We do have a team of physicians who are responsible for making these decisions, a small group that will triage patients that will be appropriate for transport,” Livingstone said.

Masri said the province also has other options, including implementing more public health restrictions, especially with gatherings.

Merriman said the Saskatchewan Party government will not bring in more restrictions at this time, calling them a “stopgap” measure.

Currently, Saskatchewan has a provincewide mask mandate and vaccine passport system.

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Saskatchewan also has among the lowest vaccination rates in Canada. Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that Saskatchewan and Alberta each have a vaccination rate of 73 per cent among their eligible populations.

Merriman said he wouldn’t call Saskatchewan’s rate the lowest.

He suggested it’s an underestimation, because people have moved out of province and are getting their shots elsewhere, but their health records remain in Saskatchewan.

He said that is resulting in skewed numbers – although he did not say by how much.

Merriman said the health authority is looking into cleaning up the data.

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