COVID fatigue has likely blunted the effectiveness of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s recent round of restrictions to deal with surging infections, according to a University of B.C. psychologist who studies pandemics.
Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix issued an order on Saturday for the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, barring social interactions between households, both indoors and outdoors, until Nov. 23.
The order didn’t close restaurants or bars, although Henry said people should only go out with people in their immediate households to help break the chains of transmission that have resulted in an alarming increase in COVID-19 infections.
But the message was met by widespread confusion about what is and isn’t allowed.
“It could have been better,” said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor in the University of B.C.’s faculty of medicine.
“It’s easy to criticize these things in hindsight, (but) you need to make sure your message is super clear before you implement any kind of changes that you want people to make in their behaviour, particularly changes that are not popular.”
When health authorities are depending on public goodwill to accomplish their goals, “messaging is hugely important.”
“You could start out with what is a really good message, but the more times you repeat that same old message, people just start to tune it out,” Taylor said.
COVID-fatigue isn’t a diagnosis, Taylor said, but rather a description for a range of symptoms and frustrations with the prolonged pandemic response. “It’s real, and it’s not new.”
“The longer these sorts of restrictions last, the more people get frustrated and tired of them, (and) they can react in various ways,” Taylor said.
Those trying their best to abide by public health orders can experience feelings of dysphoria and depression due to the long-term stress of COVID-19, and begin to tune out the message, Taylor said.
Then there are those who see the COVID risk as overblown and are more likely to let their adherence to social-distancing guidelines slip, or to “breach their bubbles” of allowable social contacts.
The need to stick to the rules, however, is reaching a critical point, Premier John Horgan said Monday, warning of a return to lockdown-style restrictions.
“That’s the end result if we don’t start to see these numbers come down,” Horgan said during a media availability.
“We need to make sure we keep essential services functioning, surgeries, schools and others operating as safely as possible,” Horgan said. “All of this is at jeopardy if we don’t continue to focus on working together.”
On Monday, Henry announced 998 new infections during the previous two days , with 133 people in hospital, 43 in intensive care, and more five deaths.
The pandemic is wearing on the public, with increasing instances of stress, anxiety and depression, particularly for those already experiencing mental health problems, said Jonny Morrison, CEO of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
For example, the association’s program to help people with depression has seen a 100-per-cent increase in calls, and its branches are seeing more parents with children experiencing anxiety and behavioural problems.
“It’s not a straight cut across the field, but I think it’s worth highlighting the fact that people who are already struggling with their mental health are suffering the most,” Morrison said.
People with disabilities, Indigenous people, parents and caregivers have also reported increasing struggles with mental health in CMHA surveys, Morrison said.
It is a problem that has grown as the pandemic persists, said Dr. Laksmi Yatham, the regional head of psychiatry for Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Healthcare.
“What we saw, initially, when the pandemic began, we actually saw the number of people seeking help went down,” Yatham said.
But under prolonged stress, Yatham said the numbers of people experiencing anxiety, loneliness and substance abuse are rising, which increases the risk of mental disorders.
And as the second wave of COVID-19 hits the region, “We are seeing more and more people coming in for help, (and) our bed occupancies have gone up quite a bit.”
“So we are definitely seeing the impact of the pandemic on mental health. No question about it,” Yatham said.