'We have faith in the people': Sask. premier says tougher COVID-19 rules a last resort to curb variant spread

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As variant COVID-19 cases surge in the province, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe appears steadfast in his belief that tightening public health measures could do more harm than good.

On March 23, the provincial government announced toughened restrictions in Regina, taking steps such as strictly limiting private gatherings and closing restaurants to in-person dining.

The city has been the hotspot for variant cases in the province, with 1,298 variant cases detected so far in the Regina reporting zone.

In contrast, the Saskatoon area has had just 18 variant cases identified as of Tuesday.

During a news conference in Regina on Tuesday, Moe was peppered with questions from reporters asking why his government isn't establishing stricter rules in other communities to prevent similar flare-ups — particularly in Moose Jaw where the province's reporting says variant cases are on the rise.

"It's very simple, we have faith in the people of this province and the last item that we would choose is to enact restrictions that impact not only people's lives but impact ultimately their livelihoods. So restrictions are not the first tool," Moe said.

Earlier in the news conference, Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Moose Jaw should be on "red alert" due to the increase in variant cases.

As of Tuesday, the South Central reporting area, which includes Moose Jaw, had a total of 118 variants of concern that had been detected.

"Certainly I support the mayor of Moose Jaw who has said that you know, behave as if you're in Regina, minimize the number of contacts, order more takeout more curbside pick up," Shahab said.

"Be very cautious about any household bubbles and very cautious about any indoor gatherings," he said.

The specific COVID-19 strain has been identified in about 30 per cent of the 1,575 variant cases confirmed so far, according to the province.

The B.1.1.7 variant accounts for nearly all of the nearly 500 cases where the strain has been positively identified.

The variant, which first emerged in the U.K. last fall, can potentially spread faster and be transmitted quicker than the original COVID-19 strain, according to health experts.

A study released earlier in March also showed the B.1.1.7 variant may result in a higher rate of death than the original novel coronavirus strain.

While Moe didn't rule out additional public health measures if variant case numbers keep climbing in communities, he said vaccinations continue to be the focus for his government.

"I think the thing that ultimately works, whether it's a variant or the original strain of COVID or any strain of COVID to this point, what actually works is vaccinations," Moe said.

"Many of the vaccines that we are receiving over the course of this week and next week (are going) into the areas of Moose Jaw, of Regina, of Weyburn and of Yorkton, places where the variants ultimately are present," Moe said.

The South East reporting zone, which includes Weyburn, had a total of 107 identified variant cases as of Tuesday and the Central East area, which includes Yorkton, sat at 25.

"I've always said that public health measures are nothing more than a stop-gap to buy us time until such time that we get the majority of Saskatchewan residents vaccinated," Moe said.

On Tuesday, the Saskatchewan government extended the existing public health order for the rest of the province, excluding Regina, which permits private indoor gatherings of up to 10 people.