REGINA — On the day Saskatchewan asked the federal government for help to deal with surging COVID-19 hospitalizations, Premier Scott Moe granted the province could have acted sooner on a renewed mask mandate or proof-of-vaccination policy.
Health officials also announced that six intensive care patients were being sent to Ontario to relieve overwhelmed staff. The first patient was to go to Ottawa on Monday and another five were to be sent to Ontario by Wednesday.
The province said each patient transfer would cost at least $20,000 and the government would also pay to have two family members go with each patient.
"This is being done to ensure they continue to receive the very best possible care that is available," Moe said at a news conference.
When asked about his handling of the pandemic's fourth wave, Moe said: "Potentially we could have moved a week sooner with a mask mandate, or even sooner with the vaccination policy that we brought into place."
Masks in indoor public places were brought back Sept. 17 and proof of vaccination became necessary Oct. 1 to get into restaurants, bars, movie theatres, gyms, concert venues and ticketed sporting events.
The office of federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair confirmed it had received and was reviewing a formal request for assistance from the Saskatchewan Party government.
There were 124 people in the province's intensive care units Monday — 157 per cent of normal capacity.
Saskatchewan has been running out of hospital space and staff for several weeks. Elective and urgent surgeries have been cancelled and the province has suspended its organ donation program.
About 175 health-care workers have been redeployed to ICUs across the province.
"Our teams are under significant strain and have been under those conditions for a number of weeks now," said Derek Miller, executive director of the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
"It is very stressful on our front-line teams to be able to support this level of surge for this length of time, and that's a major factor in moving ahead."
Marlon Pritchard, in charge of the emergency operations centre, said the province reached out to health-care jurisdictions across North America asking if staff would be available to come to Saskatchewan.
"We made requests looking for those skilled individuals and, when those ended up not being able to provide the resources we were hoping for, we now reached out to the federal government this morning," he said.
Moe had rejected assistance from the federal government, which initially offered to help Saskatchewan with its fourth wave in late September. The premier said at the time that Ottawa would likely be able to provide enough staff for two ICU beds and his province was being realistic about Ottawa's finite resources.
On Monday he said he got that number based on "taking essentially per capita of what (the federal government) sent to Alberta."
Ottawa sent eight military critical care nurses to Edmonton earlier this month.
Pritchard said it's unknown how many critical care personnel Ottawa might be able to send to Saskatchewan through the Canadian Red Cross and the military. Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Michael Warner, clinical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said Ontario has enough resources to help Saskatchewan.
"If we don't move patients out, other patients who end up to hospital in Saskatchewan would not be able to get the care they need at all."
Saskatchewan's population is smaller than some areas of Toronto, yet its current rate of hospitalizations is worse than Ontario ever experienced, Warner said.
Saskatchewan reported a record 85 COVID-19 patients in ICUs on Monday — the equivalent to 1,061 in Ontario, Warner said.
"At our peak in wave three, we only had 891 COVID-19 patients in our ICUs ... I don't actually know how Saskatchewan is able to cope."
On July 11, Saskatchewan removed all public health orders, including a requirement to self-isolate upon receiving a positive COVID-19 test. Warner said removing the restrictions played a role in the province's fourth wave.
For a month, health-care workers and the Saskatchewan Opposition asked the province to accept federal aid to alleviate pressure and to avoid sending patients away for treatment.
"This was entirely avoidable," NDP Leader Ryan Meili said.
"Just further evidence of a premier who refuses to take any responsibility for his own failures and his own actions."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2021.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press