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The Saskatchewan government says the province’s fourth wave is waning as COVID-19 cases decline, but health officials say hospitals are still under significant pressure.

Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said Tuesday that it will take four-to-six weeks for hospitals to return to sustainable levels – and that’s only if people remain vigilant by getting vaccinated and reducing gathering sizes.

“Daily case numbers are coming down and I’m sure we’re all hearing a sigh of relief, but we have to remain cautious,” Dr. Shahab said.

The province reported 107 cases, down from a peak of 650 cases five weeks ago.

There were 222 people in hospital with the virus, 48 of them receiving intensive care. The province’s ICUs remained 123 per cent over baseline capacity.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it’s too early to tell if the drop in cases is a trend.

“[Health-care workers] are tired, they’re exhausted, they’ve been working at a very, very high acuity rate in our ICUs for multiple weeks,” said Scott Livingstone, the health authority’s CEO. “This type of care is not sustainable.”

Dr. Shahab said there are rural areas where 30 per cent to 40 per cent of eligible populations remain unvaccinated, which is enough to drive more substantive waves of COVID-19.

“We need to remain extremely vigilant over the winter months,” he said.

Owing to the extreme pressure that COVID-19 has put on hospitals, the backlog of those waiting for elective surgery is at 35,000, said Health Minister Paul Merriman.

Mr. Livingstone added it could take 18 months to catch up on hip and knee surgeries alone, not including anyone newly added to the waiting list.

“We’ve got a big hill to climb on getting our surgical numbers back to an acceptable level,” Mr. Merriman said.

He said his ministry has set aside $20-million for surgeries but will need even more money in the coming year to address the backlog.

The province remains without a plan to expand its surgical capacity, including how it will find additional health-care workers to help with the backlog.

“We haven’t built a plan, approved and staffed [it], because we’re still in the middle of the pandemic,” Mr. Livingstone said.

If people reduced their gathering sizes, the 275 health care services that have been reduced would be able to resume sooner, he added.

Mr. Merriman said he won’t bring in restrictions on gathering sizes because the province’s proof of vaccine policy and mask mandate is bringing case numbers down.

“It is working. Further restrictions right now, I don’t think they’re warranted,” Mr. Merriman said.

He later added that the Saskatchewan Party government is doing everything it can to help surgeries resume.

NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili called Merriman an “incompetent minister that has failed this province drastically.”

“I don’t think this minister has a good sense of how the health care system works, and I don’t believe he is listening fully to key leaders within the health care system, including Dr. Shahab,” Mr. Meili said.

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