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Premiers take different approaches to loosening COVID-19 restrictions

Saskatchewan's premier says he's committed to ending all COVID-19 restrictions soon, while most other provinces are laying out more gradual plans for easing public health measures. "What's necessary is your freedom.

Saskatchewan's premier says he's committed to ending all COVID-19 restrictions soon, while most other provinces are laying out more gradual plans for easing public health measures.

"What's necessary is your freedom. What's necessary is getting your life back to normal," Premier Scott Moe said in a video posted to social media. "It's time."

Moe said COVID-19 is not going away, but people are done with having to follow public health orders, so "normalizing" the virus and learning to live with it is the achievable option. 

Saskatchewan has posted its highest level of hospitalizations in the pandemic, and the Saskatchewan Medical Association is warning that loosening health measures would strain the health-care system. 

Moe, moving at a pace similar to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, is planning to have no restrictions by the end of the month. Leaders elsewhere are laying out a slower approach to easing orders.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey, who is also an orthopedic surgeon, said Thursday he understands people are frustrated with lengthy restrictions. But, he said, any changes must be done with caution.

"There are a few out there who believe freedom is identified and defined by what they are unwilling to tolerate — as if masks, vaccines and health mandates were fences built to restrict them rather than the very tools used to protect them and give them freedom," Furey said.

That province has dropped its alert level, triggering a loosening of restrictions on businesses and group sizes that start Monday. It is also lifting isolation requirements for arriving travellers. 

The contrasting approaches come as cities across the country prepare for the possibility of rallies against vaccine mandates on Friday. The demonstrations are being organized to mirror the "Convoy for Freedom" protests in Ottawa and at the U.S. border crossing near Coutts in southern Alberta over the last week. 

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said nearly 85 per cent of the total population — 89 per cent of those who are eligible — have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Around 80 per cent of all Canadians are fully vaccinated, she said in a social media post.

Meanwhile, Ontario's chief medical officer of healthurged people to remain cautious even as the province begins to ease health orders. 

Restaurants, gyms and cinemas, along with other venues, were allowed to reopen to half capacity earlier this weekwith proof-of-vaccination rules for patrons. Social gathering limits were also increased. 

Dr. Kieran Moore said vaccines give good protection against severe outcomes. So, he added, it's time to have a discussion about further loosening orders and learning to live with the virus. 

“I think it’s a discussion we have to have at a societal level about whatourvalues are," he said.

Moore said the last public health order to be lifted should be mandatory masks.

Ontario and Quebec have seen a slight decline in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 this week. Scientists and health officials in both provinces have warned that cases will likely rise as partial reopenings progress. 

Ontario reported 2,797 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 541 in ICUs — down 142 and four, respectively, from the previous day.

Quebec's hospitalizations due to COVID-19 decreased by 93 to 2,637 people. Of those, 191 were in intensive care. 

In Alberta, there was a dip of 14 COVID-19 hospitalizations to 1,584 and an increase of six in ICUs to 112.

Alberta's chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said it will be possible to remove restrictions after the latest wave of the pandemic, fuelled by the Omicron variant, subsides. 

"We cannot continue to use restrictions in the long-term once the risk of system-overwhelm has passed."

However,Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said health care in the territory has limits even under normal circumstances and COVID-19 could quickly cause it to be overwhelmed.

Silver said he knows that the ongoing pandemic has been difficult but a bit more patience is needed. The territory will take a gradual approach to lifting restrictions starting this weekend, he said.

"We all expected 2022 to be a different year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022. 

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press