Public health officials welcome moves to ease restrictions as COVID-19 metrics improve

The improving state of the COVID-19 pandemic means Canadian jurisdictions can now ease public health restrictions further, federal officials said Friday.

Canadians advised to regularly conduct personal risk assessments as restrictions are lifted

A person wearing a mask crosses a street in Toronto on March 2. Provincial governments in several provinces, including Ontario, are rapidly lifting COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The improving state of the COVID-19 pandemic means Canadian jurisdictions can now ease public health restrictions further, federal officials said Friday.

Trends of severe illness are declining in most areas of the country, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported during its weekly pandemic news conference.

Nationally, the rate of patients being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals has dropped by 15 per cent compared to last week.

"We need to turn our focus on easing societal disruption," said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam.

That message comes as provinces across the country are rapidly lifting restrictions and vaccine mandates in a variety of settings.

Alberta and Saskatchewan have moved most aggressively to scrap COVID-19 measures, including requirements for masks and vaccine passports in virtually all situations.

Ontario followed on March 1 by lifting its vaccine passport system and capacity limits in all indoor settings. Quebec is slated to introduce similar changes later this month.

While Tam noted that a return to normal life is prudent given the recession of the Omicron wave, she also advised Canadians to assume more personal responsibility as they go about life in a society with relatively few restrictions in place.

"Regaining in-person social and economic activities while the pandemic is still ongoing and the virus is not going away means we must use all that we have learned to do this safely and make it last," she said.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says Canadians will have to assume more personal responsibility as restrictions are relaxed or removed. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Compared to several provinces, the federal government has been slower to lift restrictions and vaccine mandates.

An unvaccinated person in Alberta, for example, is now allowed to go to any indoor setting with no capacity limit and no mask requirement — but that same person would not be permitted to board a plane.

Tam said federal agencies in charge of those rules, including Transport Canada, are evaluating the epidemiological situation and "will be making any policy adjustments as needed in the coming days and weeks."

Officials call for 'individual risk assessments'

Public health officials say Canadians should routinely perform what they call "individual risk assessments" as restrictions are lifted.

"Regularly checking in on the local epidemiology where you are or where you are going is important for keeping up on recommendations," Tam said.

Those assessments should become "as important and routine as checking the weather," she added.

Levels of community spread, vaccine rates and a person's age and health are among the factors to be considered when making decisions, officials said.

Even as mask requirements are lifted in some provinces, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said he plans to keep wearing a mask as an added layer of protection against infection.

"For a while, I will keep wearing a mask when I leave the house," Njoo said in French during the news conference, noting that he's over 50 and therefore faces a slightly elevated risk.

Tam and Njoo said similar assessments should be conducted ahead of any travel plans for March break.

The doctors urged families to evaluate the state of the pandemic and the public health rules at their planned destination, and to adjust their plans accordingly. Njoo did not issue any blanket advice against international travel.

"For me, personally, it's a question of doing a personal risk assessment," he said.