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This undated handout electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel Ccronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab from a sample isolated from a patient in the U.S.The Associated Press

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says a fivefold increase of COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the last 30 days means nearly 100 per cent of intensive care beds province-wide are full.

It says Saskatoon is under particular pressure. There were 35 COVID-19 patients in regular hospital beds in the city Thursday, but only a handful of intensive care spots available if their conditions worsened.

Saskatoon has around 23 ICU beds and as of that afternoon, health officials reported 10 COVID-19 patients in the city receiving intensive care.

The health authority had already been diverting intensive care patients from outside the city to other ICUs in the province, as there are more than 90 of these beds across Saskatchewan.

“What it looks like, what it feels like is something I’ve never seen before,” said Dr. Susan Shaw, whose worked as a critical care physician for two decades and is chief medical officer with the health authority.

“This is a sustained increase in very sick people for the longest period of time that I think we’ve ever seen and we know it’s going to continue for the weeks to come.”

In a briefing Thursday, officials outlined what plans were in place to add more hospital beds and the ways resources could be diverted from providing everyday health-care services to care for those most in need.

“But that comes with a cost,” said health authority CEO Scott Livingstone.

“If it comes to that point where we’re talking about completely being overwhelmed those are wartime conditions … that’s what the risk is with not containing the virus.”

Livingstone repeated the request for people to stop socializing to slow the spread of the virus, saying contact tracing is becomingly increasingly strained because those testing positive have too many close contacts.

Officials say every positive case means hours of work for contact tracers and some investigations found a single person had around 150 contacts. In some cases those with large contact lists had gone to multiple social events while symptomatic.

“I can tell you it’s so frustrating when I get emails, I get letters, I get phone calls, I get texts, I get tweets by people saying, ‘this isn’t real, you’re exaggerating, it’s not really happening, why (are) you doing this to us,” Shaw said.

“I just have to say it is so real.”

The province reported 299 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. There were 108 people in hospital, 18 of them in intensive care.

Three more people, who were 70 or older, died from the infection, bringing the provincial death toll to 40.

One of the outbreaks in Saskatoon is at a provincial jail, where 68 offenders and four staff were reported on Thursday to be infected with the novel coronavirus for a total of 85 active cases.

The province said incoming inmates who are on remand or those in sentenced custody will be sent to correctional centres in Regina and Prince Albert. It said anyone sent to a jail in the province will now be tested for COVID-19 on top having to be quarantined for 14 days.

The province recently made it mandatory for offenders to wear masks, which has been the case for staff since the summer.

Canadian authorities are assessing COVID-19 vaccine candidates while trials are underway, speeding up any eventual approval for wide use. But science reporter Ivan Semeniuk says it’s likely high-risk people will be prioritized for receiving any vaccine first, with some possibly getting it as early as the first part of 2021.

The Globe and Mail