By Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press
A new poll suggests almost 30 per cent of Canadians believe it’s time to lift pandemic restrictions and “learn to live” with the COVID-19 virus, while more than 40 per cent want measures to ease carefully.
Public health experts said Thursday the results of the Leger survey indicate a level of fatigue among the population. But being tired of the pandemic doesn’t mean the threat is gone.
“We do need to adopt a more sustainable approach to COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind,” said Roman Pabayo, an epidemiologist with the University of Alberta.
“I still think we need to be cautious as we move forward and make decisions on removing restrictions in a scientifically-informed, public health-informed way.”
Forty-three per cent of Canadians surveyed by Leger identified their feelings about the current state of the pandemic as “prudent” — the most popular answer of four options — saying they did not want to lift restrictions too quickly.
But 29 per cent said they were ready to move on, indicating they were “adequately vaccinated” and viewed the Omicron variant as “less serious.”
The other 28 per cent were evenly split among those who said they were anxious and those who were angry.
Fourteen per cent didn’t feel comfortable at all lifting safety measures, while the other 14 said they have been opposed to mandates and measures “for a while” and wanted governments to “give us back our freedom.”
Pabayo said the survey results suggest similarities to the number of Canadians who said they supported the trucker-led protest against COVID-19 measures in Ottawa over the past several days.
A Leger poll released earlier this week suggested almost two-thirds of Canadians opposed the protest in the nation’s capital — more than four in 10 surveyed said they strongly considered the demonstration a selfish display — but almost 30 per cent disagreed with that characterization of the demonstration, and 44 per cent said they sympathized with frustrations voiced by the protesters.
The latest survey, released Thursday, included online responses from 1,546 adult Canadians collected on Feb. 4 to 6. It cannot be assigned a margin of error because internet-based polls are not considered random samples.
Asked whether governments should lift all restrictions, 58 per cent replied no but 32 per cent said yes — up from 20 per cent in January and marking the highest level of support among Canadian respondents since 26 per cent in June.
Dr. Fahad Razak, a global health specialist with the University of Toronto, said he understands Canadians’ exhaustion, but policy-makers should stay mindful of epidemiologic metrics before tossing restrictions completely.
Razak said there’s been an “under-appreciation” of the “near-record levels” of infections, hospitalizations and deaths seen in Canada during this wave.
“But the second (metric) is the spin-out effects,” he said. “While surgeries and other critical procedures are on hold or not going at full pace, I think it’s premature to talk about a wider reopening.”
Respondents from Alberta were the most opposed to mandates, with 24 per cent saying they were angry about the current state of the pandemic, while 22 per cent of those in Atlantic Canada felt most anxious about lifting restrictions.
Alberta and Saskatchewan recently announced an end to their vaccine passport systems, with Alberta also lifting mask requirements for kids in schools starting Monday.
Ontario, meanwhile, has taken a more gradual approach, lifting some restrictions and monitoring trends over a three-week period before easing more measures.
Razak and Pabayo said provinces choosing to rapidly withdraw restrictions need to be ready to adapt if hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and deaths begin to increase.
The survey landed as the president of the Canadian Medical Association thanked Canadians for their hard work and encouraged them to continue to follow public health guidelines as restrictions ease.
“COVID-19 has not disappeared and uncertainty remains,” association president Dr. Katharine Smart said in a statement.
“The virus is still with us, and unfortunately will be for some time to come. Pandemic measures should be scaled back safely and gradually, based on scientific evidence and the input of health care professionals, to avoid causing unnecessary harm to communities and citizens.”
Vaccination status seemed to influence how people responded to the Leger poll.
More than 75 per cent of unvaccinated respondents said they wanted their freedom back, while 46 per cent of vaccinated individuals called for a careful reopening strategy.
Eighty-four per cent of unvaccinated respondents said they were totally dissatisfied with federal government measures to fight the pandemic, while 60 per cent of vaccinated participants were totally satisfied with the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
Data from Health Canada shows that more than 88 per cent of the country’s vaccine-eligible population has had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 83 per cent are fully vaccinated.
But only about 43 per cent of Canadians had received a third dose as of Thursday, a metric Pabayo said should improve before restrictions are fully lifted.
The COVID-19 vaccines have remained effective in preventing severe disease and death from Omicron.
More than two-thirds of Canadians surveyed believe they’ve had COVID-19 within the last three months, whether they tested positive or not, with 54 per cent saying they had mild symptoms and 16 per cent indicating they had no symptoms at all.
Nearly half of respondents — 48 per cent — indicated they were personally afraid of contracting COVID-19, with 14 per cent saying they were “very afraid” and 34 per cent “somewhat afraid.” Forty-two per cent said they were not afraid of a COVID-19 infection.
Razak said communication around learning to live with COVID-19 should be properly explained, arguing the phrase “doesn’t recognize the significant burden that has already been experienced.”
“People are fatigued. The goals have to be clear,” he said.
“Prevention of severe illness, protecting kids, getting therapeutics to those who need (them) — those are goals we could still try and align around and those would be the kind of parameters that are important to keep an eye on.”