REGINA - Saskatchewan has extended its COVID-19 public health orders until the end of January.
That means masks will remain mandatory for indoor public spaces, including schools, and the province's vaccine passport system will remain in place.
Premier Scott Moe says the extension will allow the government to monitor how the holiday season affects COVID-19 cases.
"By then, we'll have a clear picture of what impacts, if any, the Christmas season will have potentially on our COVID transmission rates in this province. And we'll re-evaluate where we are and decide if they're extended, revised or removed at that point," Moe said Thursday.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said the majority of transmission is occurring in households.
There will be no new restrictions at this time, such as limits on gathering sizes or extending vaccine passports to sports teams and churches.
"The proactiveness places of worship and sports teams have taken — all of that is making a difference," Shahab said. "And I think the more we continue to do that, the safer things become without additional public health measures."
Moe said the province is in a much better situation heading into the holidays than it was last year. However, Saskatchewan's hospitals remain overburdened from COVID-19 patients and modelling has suggested the health-care system will not return to sustainable levels until mid-January.
The premier said COVID-19 cases are declining, down about 80 per cent from the peak of the fourth wave of the pandemic seven weeks ago.
"We didn't see any rise in transmission over the Thanksgiving weekend, and cases continue to fall," Moe said.
"If everyone continues to be diligent and exercise a degree of caution and continue to get vaccinated, we should be able to do it safely without increasing the spread of COVID-19."
He said the current measures over the holidays should help prevent a fifth wave.
On Thursday, Saskatchewan reported 95 new COVID-19 cases, with 142 patients in hospital.
The seven-day average of new infections was eight cases per 100,000 people. Shahab said that number needs to drop to five before the province can start to feel comfortable.
He said he is closely monitoring a resurgence of COVID-19 in other parts of the world, including Europe, which is being driven by people moving indoors for winter and waning immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We're aware of the risk all Canadians face as we head into the winter season with COVID-19 present in our communities, and we're also aware of all the tools we have available," Moe said, pointing to vaccines and home testing kits.
However, vaccinations in Saskatchewan have been stagnant, and Shahab said residents need to get their COVID-19 shots, including boosters, and remain vigilant.
The province is slowly recovering from its fourth wave, when it had some of the highest infection numbers in the country. The Saskatchewan Party government resisted implementing restrictions over the summer but brought in a mask mandate in September and its vaccine passport system in October.
"We likely should have acted a few weeks earlier in respect to the measures that are in place today. In hindsight, that is something I regret," Moe said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021.