Former medical health officer calls for more active COVID-19 testing in Saskatchewan

REGINA—A former deputy medical health officer in Saskatchewan believes the province should more actively test for COVID-19 as it prepares to lift restrictions on public interaction.

Dr. Anne Huang worked for both the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Health Canada and says the government’s overall plan for reopening retail shops and personal-care services next month provides thoughtful guidance.

Saskatchewan is the first province to outline details for easing measures meant to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But other provinces, including Manitoba, have indicated their own reopening plans could come soon.

The plan comes as Premier Scott Moe announced Friday that noncritical travel to the province’s north was being restricted as the region deals with an outbreak in the remote community of La Loche, about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Moe said most of the ten new COVID-19 cases announced Friday were tied to the community and in total, the far north has 25 active cases — more that anywhere else in the province.

There were five cases on the nearby Clearwater River Dene Nation. Health officials said two residents at a long-term health centre in La Loche had tested positive and the RCMP announced a civilian officer from the detachment there was infected.

In total, there were 341 cases in Saskatchewan Friday.

Saskatchewan has said testing, contact tracing and physical distancing are all key to keep the infection rate low as some activities resume.

“I do hope that they will adopt a more active testing strategy,” Dr. Huang said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“The question is have we cast the net wide enough and have we cast the net in the right place?”

Huang believes essential workers, such as grocery store cashiers, police officers and firefighters, should be systematically tested even if they don’t show COVID-19 symptoms.

There’s evidence showing people are more infectious at the start of the illness, a couple of days before showing any symptoms, and right now Saskatchewan’s testing relies on people self-assessing for symptoms, she said.

“That means people are not necessarily going to be tested when they’re most infectious or if they do not show any infection,” she said.

Huang said another way to increase testing is to incorporate the latest science such as that coming out of some European countries which suggests a loss of smell could be one of the first signs of COVID-19.

“These people represent the little sparks in the forest that could become a big wildfire if the right conditions are there, if they end up providing services or going to hair salons.”

Other public health experts agree mass testing is needed to prevent a second wave of infections contracted from asymptomatic people.

So far, Saskatchewan has done more than 25,000 tests, but the actual number done daily has fallen consistently below Premier Scott Moe’s target of 1,500.

Health officials say demand will fluctuate and one of the reasons for the recent decrease in cases is the end of influenza season.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, has said there’s a low positive test rate, which means officials don’t believe they are missing cases.

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He said increased testing will be focused on outbreaks or clusters in institutions.

Shahab has said “in rare occasions” transmission can happen by people without symptoms, which is why physical distancing should be followed.

To deal with the northern outbreak, health officials say they are working on a plan to roll out mass testing in La Loche in hopes of detecting those with very mild symptoms.