SASKATOON -- According to infectious disease expert Dr. Alexander Wong, it’s not a matter of if the fourth wave of COVID-19 will happen, but when, and how big it will be.

“There's no question as to whether or not it's going to happen,” he said.

“There's going to be a lot of people that get sick, and there's going to be people that get hospitalized, younger persons, and there's going to be people that are going to die, and that's going to be tragic.”

Wong says the biggest factor will be unvaccinated people—in Saskatchewan he says vaccination rates are lower in the far north and the south.

“Delta is going to find the people who are unvaccinated,” he said.

“It's super contagious, as it's been well documented. Even though it's not necessarily more virulent, because it's so much easier to get, so to speak, it's really hard to see people who are not vaccinated being safe, especially in the current environment when we have no further public health restrictions in place.”

According to federal government data, 62.46 per cent of people in Saskatchewan have received their first dose of the vaccine—far below the national average of 69.69 per cent—and Dr. Wong says that will contribute to seeing the fourth wave hit our province.

“If things are going to happen, they're probably going to happen in Alberta and Saskatchewan first,” he said.

“We've got the lowest overall provincial vaccine uptake, in combination with essentially almost zero public health restrictions. No other jurisdiction has that across the country and so, for better or for worse, we're probably going to be a bellwether again for the rest of the country.”

Virologist Jason Kindrachuk says we could see cases start to increase by September.

“In summertime, a lot people are spending more time outdoors so the risk of transmission goes down,” he said. “I think a lot of it's going to be based on people's habits, certainly September is probably going to be when we start to see that in the Prairies.”

“We know that September long weekend hits and suddenly the weather starts to plummet overnight, that forces more people indoors. We'll probably see an uptick in cases there.”

Kindrachuk says that’s when the province could see the Delta variant replace all other circulating strains of the virus.

“When you look at the data certainly coming out of the US, there is a chasm between those that are vaccinated and have really no signs of illness, certainly are not showing up as severe disease, and those that are unvaccinated and are now filling up hospitals in the in the states that have low vaccination rates,” he said.

Children aged 12 and under are currently not eligible to receive a vaccine. Wong says Pfizer’s clinical trial data on a vaccine for that age group could be released "somewhere between the end of August to sometime in September."

Kindrachuk says while children have a lower rate of severe disease, it’s not zero risk.

“What are we seeing in the UK, well certainly there have been instances where we've seen upticks in cases within kids,” he said.

“If we put kids in the position of being, essentially in areas where there aren't a lot of mitigation protocols and we have the virus circulating, they are going to be able to get infected," Kindrachuk said.

“I think we're going to have to reevaluate what it all looks like, and wearing masks are a simple way to protect ourselves, as well as each other, and more importantly I think honestly protecting those who can't be vaccinated like our kids,” said Dr. Wong.

Dr. Wong says Saskatchewan’s vaccine uptake has stalled, while Manitoba’s uptake is roughly five per cent higher.

“I think the real difference is that Manitoba has a vaccine mandate, which basically says if you want to participate in these activities, whether it be going to a football game, going to a movie theater or whatever else, you need to prove that you've been fully vaccinated,” he said.

“That again creates a certain degree of incentive for those who are just kind of indifferent, or those who are just kind of sitting on the fence, or those who are just like ‘You know what, it's not that important for me to do right now.’”

Kindrachuk says a vaccine mandate is nuanced and has the potential to backfire, possibly causing those opposed to getting their vaccine to become more entrenched in their position.

“It's very, very difficult,” he said.

“Do you only embolden that by introducing those mandates, because of the fact that you already have people that are saying ‘we don't want the vaccine regardless’ and now you're saying, ‘Listen, if you don't do this we are going to keep you away from doing X, Y, and Z, or potentially impact things like employment or schooling.’”

YOUNG KIDS COULD GET VACCINE

“There are certain areas of the province that have low vaccination rates, certainly up in the north we've seen some pockets break out up there,” said Health Minister Paul Merriman.

“We want to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. We're going door to door in some communities to see if we can vaccinate people.”

Merriman says there are no plans to institute a vaccine mandate in Saskatchewan, but the province plans to have vaccination clinics in schools once classes resume in the fall.

“We have a couple of things that are on the horizon,” he said.

“One is there's potential for children aged five to 11 to get vaccinated, that should be coming that decision should be coming in a few weeks.”