REGINA — Saskatchewan will stick to its age-based COVID-19 vaccine rollout for now, provincial officials said Wednesday, despite calls to give essential workers the shot ahead of schedule.
"That will do nothing but slow down any vaccination plan, including ours in Saskatchewan," Premier Scott Moe said after a call with Canada’s first ministers.
"In saying that, we understand the need to address some of those front-line workers."
Moe said his government could consider large worksites with several hundred workers moving up the priority list.
He added that the province may be able to use mobile clinics to vaccinate those workers.
But the premier maintained that "we will not sacrifice the capacity of our plan."
"We are going to have a needle offered to everyone in this province by sometime in early June, if we continue to receive vaccines from the federal government, which I think we will."
The Saskatchewan Medical Association is critical of the plan, saying the government's refusal to immediately vaccinate essential workers, including physicians and health-care workers who have not yet received their shots, "will result in more deaths and long-term illness."
"COVID-19 is mutating into variants of concern that threaten to overwhelm Saskatchewan's health system," association president Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz said in a statement.
"We ask the government to show flexibility and adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic."
Konstantynowicz said the government's position doesn't account for the acceleration of the more infectious variants in Saskatchewan, particularly in the Regina area.
"The current age-based vaccination strategy will not get us through the challenges the province is facing," Konstantynowicz said.
She added that Saskatchewan has had one of the "most effective and nimble" vaccine distribution processes to date in Canada and believes "the vaccine distribution effort would be ready and able to adapt to change as needed."
The Opposition NDP also urged the Saskatchewan Party government to rethink the rollout.
"This premier's weak and ineffectual half-measures have failed to prevent the severe second and now third waves of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan," NDP Leader Ryan Meili said in a statement.
"The fact is, variants are a game-changer, but Scott Moe is stuck in the same ‘do-nothing’ mentality that put us in this spot in the first place."
Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer said in his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday that he predicts all residents of the province age 18 and over could have access to their first dose by mid-May.
"We are projecting that by mid-April, 50 and older will be getting vaccinated throughout Saskatchewan," Dr. Saqib Shahab said.
He added that people within that age group living in the northern part of the province already qualify.
By the end of April, he said people 40 and older would be eligible to get their first shot and those over 18 could get it by mid-May.
His projections come as the province reported 189 new cases of COVID-19 and two new deaths. That brings the death toll in Saskatchewan to 445 since the pandemic began.
There were 201 people in hospital due to the virus on Wednesday, with 42 in intensive care.
Saskatchewan officials also confirmed 377 more cases of the variants of concern, with 230 of them in the Regina area. The capital region has been a hot spot for the variants for weeks.
Health Minister Paul Merriman vigorously defended the age-based immunization strategy, saying that changing it now would cause more challenges.
"If we move (younger essential workers) up, then we have to move out the 50-year-olds and that's where we still see higher rates of hospitalization," he said.
"And that's why we have been able to lead the country during that last 60 days on our immunization, because we stuck to this age-based category, while we've seen some other provinces deviate from that and we saw them slow down."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.
— By Daniela Germano in Edmonton