'We are not done': Saskatoon epidemiologist urges people to get vaccinated as COVID-19 Delta variant cases rise

As more cases of the Delta variant, first detected in India, are reported in Saskatchewan, a Saskatoon epidemiologist is calling on the public to continue being vigilant and get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 when it’s their turn.

“We are not done yet and we don’t want to peel back. We don’t want to lose the gains that we have made in our province,” Nazeem Muhajarine said.

Two of the province’s largest testing labs, located in Regina and Saskatoon, are screening every positive sample of COVID-19 for the Delta variant.

Samples that are identified as a possible Delta variant then go on to further sequencing which can take up to three weeks to perform due to the complexity of the technology and travel times required to get the sample to another lab, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).

“It’s a particularly concerning variant because it has two mutations that have been found in other variants. That gives it a survival advantage, including immune escape and potentially vaccine breakthroughs,” Muhajarine said.

VARIANT MORE TRANSMISSABLE

As of Thursday, 45 cases of the B.1.617.2 or Delta variant have been identified in Saskatchewan. Most are in Regina at 20, followed by Saskatoon at 14.

“It is important to note that as of right now, the majority of cases related to the Delta variant are imported from travel. However, we continue to watch for potential community spread or secondary transmission of this variant,” Dr. Johnmark Opondo, a medical health officer with the SHA, said in a statement to CTV News.

Opondo said the SHA is also working with people who have tested positive as well as their potential close contacts to ensure they are self-isolating and taking other measures to stop further spread.

While the number of Delta variant cases are fairly low in Saskatchewan, Muhajarine said it is important to look at other provinces and countries that are seeing a surge in these cases.

The variant, believed to be behind spikes in COVID-19 cases in parts of the United Kingdom, has proven to be more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, according to Muhajarine, who says that variant is outpacing the Alpha variant that was initially detected there.

SECOND DOSE KEY

Public Health England has shown that the Delta variant reduces the effectiveness of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines for people who have only received one shot, but protection is higher for people who have received both doses.

That’s why Muhajarine is encouraging people to get their second dose as soon as they become eligible.

Starting Friday, Saskatchewan residents 55 years of age and older, along with people who got their first dose on or before April 7 will become eligible for their second shot.

“The point is, we have to get fully vaccinated with both doses in order for vaccines to give us full protection,” Muhajarine said.

Muhajarine is also urging people to continue being cautious even after they get their second dose and as the province continues to loosen restrictions.

He said continuing to wear a mask even after the provincial mask mandate is lifted and practicing physical distancing are important steps to keep yourself and others safe.

“The variants that causes, that drives new waves are still around. In fact, it might still be multiplying and spreading. We cannot detect and identity it as quickly as it is spreading,” Muhajarine said.

“The final whistle of this game, of this hockey game, has not been blown by the referee yet. We are deep in the fourth quarter, but we are not done yet.”