Learning to live with COVID-19 is a message that county and territory leaders have been repeating across the country.
But learning to live with the virus is not so simple for the millions of Canadians whose medical condition or age has increased the risk of complications from COVID-19 infection.
As provinces and territories lift epidemiological restrictions such as mandates for masks and vaccine passport programs, the most vulnerable community is being forced to assess their risk tolerance.
“For some people — who are immunocompromised or frail elderly, for example — it may be too dangerous for them to get COVID. We shouldn’t be arrogant,” said Dr. Stephen Taylor, clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry. At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Dr. Brian Goldman, podcast host, told CBC Dosage.
“We have to think about what it means for a particular person to be infected.”
Those who are most at risk may ask: How can I navigate a world free from the restrictions of the pandemic?
Psychologists say there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, but that’s what they recommend.
Judge your risk tolerance
As restrictions begin to be lifted, psychologists say it may take time to adjust — and how quickly people adapt can vary based on a variety of factors, such as health risks and vaccination.
Ideally, Taylor said, pandemic measures such as masking and physical distancing would be relaxed to allow for that adjustment period.
“If all of the restrictions are lifted all of a sudden, that transition will be very stressful for some people, especially people who are worried about infection,” he said.
Measures to ease restrictions on the spread of the epidemic varied across the country. Saskatchewan dropped its COVID-19 health restrictions Monday, including the requirement to wear a mask. Alberta lifted nearly all remaining restrictions on the novel coronavirus on Tuesday.
Nova Scotia will lift all of its restrictions by March 21.
Other provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia, have taken a more incremental approach to dismantling COVID-19 measures. B.C. officials decided to keep the province’s vaccination card system in place until the end of June.
We are at a crossroads, said an epidemiologist in Saskatchewan.
“I think the majority of Canadians … are still very cautious,” said Nazim Mahagen, an epidemiologist and professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan Medical School in Saskatoon.
On the one hand, they like to believe what the government tells them that maybe we need to learn to live with COVID, but on the other hand, deep down, we don’t feel completely safe, now is the time to do it.
With measures lifting at different speeds from county to county, psychologists said deciding whether to venture outside when there are fewer restrictions becomes an exercise in taking risks.
“Some people have a higher tolerance for uncertainty and a greater tolerance for risk. It’s a good thing to try and figure yourself out,” said Dr. Melanie Badale, a clinical psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver.
A key component of judging your tolerance for risk, she said, is to not allow your emotions to rule yourself and to do a reality check.
To do this, she suggests that people first familiarize themselves with current state or provincial health guidelines.
From there, they should decide if they are comfortable in a situation based on any “individual personal recommendations from the family doctor or caregiver,” said Badale, who is also a volunteer science advisor with Anxiety Canada.
She said that following the science of what we know about the virus is also key.
Taylor said it’s important for people to also consider their comfort levels.
“Let’s say the mandates to wear masks are lifted, but you don’t feel safe for whatever reason. I think it’s a good idea to wear a mask if you want to until you start to feel safe,” he said. “In the end, it’s a matter of taking your own risks.”
What about the parents?
As some counties begin lifting mandates for masks in schools and other pandemic measures, some parents may be wondering how to judge their children’s risk tolerance.
Just like with adults, Taylor said, it depends on each case. But parents should have a conversation with their child – if he is old enough – to identify any problems they may have.
“Maybe if your child is very, very anxious, a little encouragement can help if he insists on wearing his mask for the first short time back to school,” Taylor said.
“If that doesn’t create any problems, why not let them do it?”
Improve your tolerance for uncertainty
The University of Saskatchewan Muhajarine website said there are ways to stay protected from COVID-19:
- Get a full series of vaccines and a booster shot if you qualify, which is still the best way to stay safe from COVID-19.
- Wear a high-quality, appropriate mask.
- Aim for good ventilation indoors, wherever possible.
“We’ve learned a lot about the required procedures, how to keep ourselves safe, and we can’t just throw them out the window,” Mohagen added.
When people are ready to start making changes, Albadali said, they can take small steps to improve their tolerance for uncertainty.
“The biggest thing I’ve been helping people with is trying to figure out small behavioral changes they can make that will be consistent with their values, will be healthy for them and keep them a little outside their comfort zone, but without putting them in a meaningless risk zone for their health.”
For example, Al-Badali said that if someone isn’t outside to see their friends, they can take a walk outside.
“We figure out what you’d like to do that makes sense for you, and let’s go over some of the steps you can take to move you toward that goal,” she said.
Know when to ask for advice
Al-Badali said the emotional response to lifting restrictions can vary from person to person.
Some may be afraid of what is going to happen or feel anxious. But, she said, it’s important to realize that there is a difference between fear and anxiety.
“Anxiety is our response to the potential threat, and fear is our response to the imminent threat that is occurring now,” she said. “And with COVID, there’s a real dance to trying to figure out the real danger and the reasonable risks that we have to take to live our lives.”
The difference between the two has been unclear to many, as news of the virus has developed since the pandemic was announced just under two years ago.
As we venture into this new phase of the pandemic, Badali and Taylor said, it’s important for people to realize when their concern about lifting restrictions is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.
“If anxiety is getting in the way of your life and seems excessive, if your friends or family say, ‘Hey, you don’t seem like your usual self,’…then this is a suggestion you might make use of seeing a mental health professional.”
Al-Badali emphasized that while there Other sources To help those who may be feeling anxious, people should remember to be kind and supportive during this transitional period.
“If we can work towards that compassionate environment, I think that will help people.”
Written and produced by Stephanie Dubois