Nearly a month has passed since COVID restrictions in Saskatchewan were fully lifted, ushering in what many have regarded as a return to normal, but experts warn the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is a sign the pandemic hasn’t passed yet.
BA.2 has become more concerning because of a recent uptick in cases in multiple countries and is believed to be behind rising COVID-19 case numbers in Saskatchewan.
“This pandemic is not over yet,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf, public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan analyzing Saskatoon’s wastewater found a 66 per cent increase in evidence of COVID-19 in the most recent weekly samples. BA.2 made up 34.1 per cent of viral load in Saskatoon. In a Regina study, BA.2 appeared in 37 per cent of the samples.
“With BA.2 making its way, that could also accelerate things so that what would have been a shoulder or a delayed decline in this wave could now become a second peak in many parts of Canada,” Neudorf said.
Neudorf said the emerging subvariant doesn’t seem to be any more severe than other strains of Omicron, including the BA.1 strain most common during the last wave of the pandemic, but appears to be more transmissible.
The situation is made more complicated by the lack of restrictions across most Canadian provinces, he said, adding the public perception of Omicron as less severe undercut the seriousness of the virus.
“Even though it’s slightly less severe, it’s so much more transmissible. It’s resulting in so many more cases that the impact on hospitalizations and deaths has been very similar to the Delta wave,” he said.
That applies to this new variant, meaning people should be cautious and called the removal of restrictions in February premature.
Initial data is showing the subvariant could be about 30 per cent more transmissible than the Omicron variant, according to Dr. Joseph Blondeau, a clincial microbiologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
Blondeau said that in other countries the subvariant has been following a similar trajectory as earlier Omicron strains in terms of virulence.
Questions still hover around whether the subvariant could force another wave of COVID-19, he said.
Blondeau speculated an increase in deaths or hospitalizations would push government to put restrictions back in place, but doubts restrictions will return.
He echoed Neudorf’s sentiment that even with a less severe virus, the transmissibility can still put weight on Saskatchewan hospitals.
Tracy Zambory, the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, said hospitals are operating under extreme pressure because of the virus, especially in Saskatoon, with packed emergency rooms. She called it a pressure cooker for nurses.
“The registered nurses have not had a break in the action for two and a half years,” Zambory said.
Zambory said if the provincial government wants to return to normal, a phrase Premier Moe has used when discussing an end to public health mandates, she wants to see a plan about managing the virus long-term, with nurses included in discussing it.
For her, that would include addressing short staffing and how the province will meet both COVID-19 and regular health care needs.
CBC News sent an inquiry about Zambory’s hopes to the provincial Ministry of Health for comment late Tuesday and is awaiting a response.
No human beings have endless reserves of energy.– Dennis Kendel, health policy expert and former physician
Zambory expects that with a more transmissible variant, hospitalization rates will rise and put more pressure on nurses.
During a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) town hall, Dr. Johnmark Opondo said that COVID-19’s presence in the community is trending down but is stabilizing at very high levels.
He said that while the province is approaching the end of the pandemic, it’s not there yet.
BA.2 represents about six per cent of the Omicron variants of concern and the majority of confirmed cases are on Saskatchewan’s western border, according to a Saskatchewan Health Authority town hall on Thursday.
Unlike the BA.1 subvariant of Omicron, which “hit us like a flash,” Opondo said BA.2 has been appearing in clusters around the province.
Dennis Kendel, a health policy expert and retired physician, said the provincial government has made it difficult to understand the current pandemic situation by not relaying up-to-date information.
He relies on the SHA town halls as “one of the few sources” for information on the pandemic in Saskatchewan.
Kendel also said he was aware of the strain on hospitals and is concerned the province will exhaust their human health care resources.
“The government has just taken for granted that somehow they have an endless capacity to cope with this,” Kendel told Heather Morrison, host of CBC’s Saskatoon Morning.
“No human beings have endless reserves of energy.”
Kendel said the province may need to reimpose masking requirements if it looks to “mitigate harm and preventable deaths,” though he doesn’t expect restrictions to return.