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Saskatchewan chief medical officer Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks at a COVID-19 media update at the Legislative Building in Regina on Dec. 9, 2020.Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan is looking to other provinces to see what measures are successful in keeping front-line and essential staff working as COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant surge.

The province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, says his recommendations on any further public health orders will be based on keeping essential services going as Saskatchewan prepares for its biggest spike in infections yet.

He said the Omicron variant is behaving more like a respiratory virus in a pandemic, which is more transmission but with a lower potential ability to produce disease.

Ottawa to send 140 million COVID-19 rapid tests to provinces, territories as Omicron cases rise across the country

“So the challenge right now is (the) business community in terms of staff available to work in health care and education and other essential sectors, as well as (being) able to keep our grocery stores stocked and our trucks running,” Shahab said Wednesday.

“It’s a very different stage of the pandemic, and that’s going to be very important to manage over the next six to eight weeks ... or 12 weeks, if it comes to different parts of the province at different times.”

Shahab said further COVID-19 measures may be brought in to preserve workers if needed.

Saskatchewan has already shortened the self-isolation period for vaccinated people to five days from 10 to allow workers to return to their jobs sooner.

Derek Miller, head of the province’s emergency operations centre, said the Saskatchewan Health Authority is also watching how health care and workers in other areas are being affected by the Omicron variant – which is now behind 95 per cent of cases in Saskatchewan.

The health authority is starting to see a potential increase in sick days and contingency plans are being developed and communicated with teams. Miller said at this time, services are not being impacted.

Schools in the province are also seeing staff call in sick, as Saskatchewan students were the first among the provinces to return to school after the holidays without a delay.

“One school indicated they’re down eight staff members, another indicated they’re down 16 staff members,” said Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.

“We have lots of schools across the province that are short on staff and unable to provide substitute teachers.”

However, Education Minister Dustin Duncan said keeping schools open will remain a priority.

“Schools should be first to open and last to close,” Duncan said, cautioning that some classes may move online depending on who’s affected by the virus.

NDP education critic Carla Beck criticized the Saskatchewan Party government’s plan as a “wait-and-see” approach.

“If you know a hurricane is coming, you don’t wait for the storm to hit to board up your windows,” Beck said in a statement.

“The longer you wait and sit on your hands, the fewer options you leave for school divisions and parents, eventually forcing classes online when you no longer have the staffing capacity in schools.”

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan reported 541 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the province’s seven-day average of daily cases to 549, or just over 45 cases per 100,000 – the highest it has been since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations have also started to rise in the province. There were 106 people in hospital with COVID-19 Wednesday.

Cases are mainly affecting people between the ages of 20 to 39, but Shahab said there is concern it could reach more vulnerable and older populations in the weeks ahead.

“We’ll have to see how things develop in Saskatchewan and also how the surge is being managed in other provinces.”

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