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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he does not intend to step in with restrictions to try to contain the spread of Omicron.Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe faces the prospect of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 rushing through his province. But unlike his counterparts in other parts of the country, Mr. Moe does not intend to step in with restrictions to try to contain the spread.

Gathering limits, he argued, are ineffective against Omicron.

“I don’t know that those are working in any other province across Canada,” Mr. Moe told reporters Wednesday. “We’re seeing numbers continuing to spread in areas that have restrictions in place that go far beyond gathering limits.”

Saskatchewan has established itself as an outlier as Canada battles the latest wave of the coronavirus. Saskatchewan was the only province in Canada not to delay students’ return to the classroom after the winter break; residents socialize without restrictions; large conferences such as this week’s Western Canadian Crop Production Show are not subject to capacity downgrades; and events including hockey tournaments are permissible, albeit not always possible given Omicron’s ability to infect so many people.

Mr. Moe conceded that Omicron will disrupt schools, businesses and the health care system. But Saskatchewanians should prepare for interruptions, he said, rather than look to government for intervention.

The province, on Thursday, will present its plan for how the health care system will respond as Omicron puts more pressure on employees and facilities. Quebec last month said it would allow health care workers with COVID-19 to return to work in order to prop up hospitals short on staff.

Instead of restrictions, Saskatchewan’s defence plan relies on rapid tests. The province last week said it distributed more than 12 million tests to about 600 sites, ranging from village libraries to city grocery stores. Saskatchewan officials have said they received more tests from Ottawa because they asked for more.

Rapid tests are available to the public in some other provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario, but those supplies are limited compared with Saskatchewan. Mr. Moe reiterated that restrictions – whether keeping kids home from school or preventing grandparents from visiting family – come with economic and social consequences.

“The tools we’ve made available to Saskatchewan people, at least for the time being, appear to be working,” Mr. Moe said. “And appear to be quite effective. As effective as any of the measures that have been implemented in other areas.”

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Saskatchewan on Tuesday counted 121 patients with COVID-19 in hospital, including nine in intensive care. A month ago, there were 109 COVID-19 patients in hospital, with 35 of those in IUC. That means Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 hospital admissions, excluding ICU patients, climbed 54 per cent over the month. The ICU census, meanwhile, dropped 74 per cent over the same time period.

While Mr. Moe questioned the usefulness of measures such as gathering restrictions and physical distancing, Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Saqib Shahab, urged residents to reduce “discretionary” contacts, such as those outside the workplace, for two to four weeks.

Further, he suggested strategies that amount to gathering restrictions. If 10 people are trained to do one key role, he said as an example, they should avoid meeting in the same room so their institution can function if some fall ill. Dr. Shahab noted that people are voluntarily taking action, such as wearing better masks and reducing their contacts, in light of Omicron.

When asked who Saskatchewanians should trust, given the conflicting messages on gathering restrictions, the Premier said: “They should trust themselves.”

Mr. Moe noted that vaccinations and access to rapid tests make the current situation much different than two years ago. “We are asking Saskatchewan people to use their judgment when they do feel it is necessary to come together,” he said.

Ayisha Kurji, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is among the experts calling for the province to reintroduce gathering restrictions. She said it is unrealistic to think Omicron can be stopped, but standing pat is not the answer.

“We could slow it down,” Dr. Kurji said. “If you’re not seeing people, you can’t spread it.”

The health care work force is fragile in light of Omicron, she said, and that warrants government action. “Even if the numbers [of patients] in hospitals don’t go up as much, we still might be in trouble.”

The Delta variant flattened Saskatchewan’s health care system this fall, to the point where the province had to ship intensive-care patients to Ontario. Mr. Moe argued that the current readiness of Saskatchewan’s hospitals is not comparable with those in Ontario and Quebec because the eastern provinces were still dealing with Delta patients when those with Omicron arrived. Saskatchewan does not expect the same overlap, he said, because Delta swept the province earlier and patients with Omicron have not yet landed in the ICU.

Saskatchewan’s public-health restrictions are limited to requiring people to: wear masks at indoor public spaces; provide proof-of-vaccination or recent negative test in order to access businesses and venues; and isolate – for five days if they are fully vaccinated and 10 days if not – after testing positive for COVID-19. Close contacts who are not fully vaccinated must also isolate. Saskatchewan on Wednesday extended these orders until the end of February.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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