Oct. 27, 2020

Majority of Canadians take COVID-19 seriously, follow guidelines

National survey highlights broad impact of pandemic on overall health and well-being

The vast majority of Canadians — 91 per cent — believe they're doing a good job mitigating the spread of COVID-19, according to a new study that surveyed people across the country on their beliefs, concerns and behaviours when it comes to the pandemic.

The study, published Oct. 23 and funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research COVID-19 rapid response grant, surveyed 2,000 Canadian adults between April 26 and May 1, 2020. Researchers say the findings from the first survey of its kind in Canada offer important lessons for public health response as the country prepares for a second wave. 

  • Photo above: Kirsten Fiest, left, and Jeanna Parsons Leigh are co-authors on a new study surveying Canadians on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People want to be informed and they want to follow the public health guidelines,” says Dr. Kirsten Fiest, PhD, study co-lead and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “As we’re seeing a surge in cases across the country, the need for clear, co-ordinated, evidence-informed guidelines is more important than ever.”

Canadians recognize the severity of COVID-19, with 62 per cent rating it as a very serious problem and 21 per cent as moderately serious. As well, 80 per cent of respondents reported a high compliance with distancing measures, including self-isolating and physical distancing.

Compliance with public health recommendations around physical distancing and wearing masks is key to keeping case numbers down, adds Fiest, who is also an assistant professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine, Community Health Sciences and Psychiatry at the CSM.

“Everyone is fatigued and everyone wants to get back their normal life, but that's just not the reality right now,” she says. “If we want our economy to stay open, kids to stay in school and to get through the second wave without overwhelming our health system, we must remain vigilant.”

This is the first national survey in Canada to comprehensively assess public perceptions on various aspects of the pandemic, and its findings highlight the broader impact of a pandemic on the public’s overall health and well-being.

“Very few of our respondents reported ever testing positive for COVID-19, yet many perceived that aspects of their overall health had deteriorated, particularly mental, emotional and social health,” says Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh, PhD, study co-lead and also a member of the O’Brien Institute.   

Physically distancing from friends and family for months on end can take a heavy toll, leaving many feeling downright lonely, she adds.

Parsons Leigh, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University, says Canadians need to find ways to safely engage in activities that support the social aspects of their lives, such as connecting virtually or at a distance.   

While physical distance is necessary as a public health measure, social distance is not.

The findings also suggest that public health officials should view mainstream media, and in particular television, as important vehicles of COVID-19-related information.

Almost two-thirds of survey respondents reported searching for information about COVID-19 daily, and mainly getting that information from Canadian news sources including television, newspapers and websites.

Those seeking information online should do so from trusted sources, says Parsons Leigh, as misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading as fast as the virus itself and poses a serious danger to the public.

For example, a quarter of survey respondents were undecided or disagreed that wearing a face mask in public can help prevent spread of the virus.

“This was prior to masks being mandated in some jurisdictions but the finding provides a window to public views on this health protection strategy,” says Parsons Leigh.

When it comes to vaccines, 64 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they will get the shot when a vaccine is developed.

“Now is the time to address the barriers to vaccination uptake so we can maximize this opportunity when the time comes,” says Parson Leigh.

A number of regional differences were identified in the study, with perceptions seemingly impacted by case numbers in the region.

Respondents in provinces with lower reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 tended to be less concerned about contracting the virus or potential impacts on health care compared to a province such as Ontario, which at the time of the survey was managing strain on hospital resources. An exception to this was Québec, which had the highest reported cases in Canada, but where respondents generally were more likely to report lower levels of concern than those in Ontario.

Besides complying with public health guidelines to wear a mask and physically distance, Fiest says there is one important step that Canadians can take to protect themselves and others as we enter the colder months.

“Get a flu shot. That is absolutely one of the best things that people can do right now,” she says.

Kirsten Fiest is a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and an assistant professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine, Community Health Sciences and Psychiatry at the CSM.

Jeanna Parsons Leigh is a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health and a research assistant professor in the Department of Critical Care Medicine at the CSM, and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University.


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