Mirelle Durham’s children have gotten their COVID-19 vaccine.
With back-to-school nearing in Ontario, getting her children, aged nine and six years old, vaccinated was the best way to protect them, she said.
“This is the only option that we have,” Durham told Global News recently.
“It’s some protection, and I think if they were to get sick and end up in the hospital, I think that would be a lot worse.”
Durham’s children are now among the 45 per cent of kids aged five to 11 who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but that number isn’t growing fast enough as Omicron spreads through Canada, experts say.
“We’ve been struggling with our communication to parents in this age group … COVID generally in children causes flu-like or cold-like symptoms, and most children do well. But some children do have severe disease and do have bad outcomes from COVID,” said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association.
“Our messaging trying to convey both those things at the same time has led some parents to wonder, ‘Is it really necessary if I vaccinate?’ And I think that’s been confusing.”
Five-to-11 vaccination lagging behind those in 12-to-17 age group
Canada started rolling out vaccines for children aged five to 11 at the end of November, shortly after Health Canada approved Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine for that age group.
With most schools across Canada temporarily returning to remote learning immediately following the Christmas break, the vaccination rate still lags behind older students, who have been able to get vaccinated since earlier in 2021.
Alberta vaccination rate for kids aged 5-11 remains low
About 87 per cent of kids aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose, while 83 per cent are fully vaccinated.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a plea for children ages five to 11 to get vaccinated, especially during the Omicron wave.
“Almost half of kids across this country have gotten their vaccine. … We need to get more, so please ask your parents if you can get vaccinated,” Trudeau said.
Michelle Dagnino, executive director of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre in Toronto, told Global News vaccine uptake in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood has dropped off since the rollout began.
With in-person schooling returning in Ontario Monday, Dagnino said she’s seen vaccine uptake increase, but not by a dramatic jump.
Dagnino agrees with Smart that the messaging around vaccination for kids hasn’t been clear.
“From the beginning, parents needed to hear, ‘This is very safe, this is the best way to protect your children and your families and this is the best way to protect your communities,’” she said.
“What we’ve heard a lot has been some uncertainty about whether we should be waiting to get more information about the vaccines, whether it is sort of the best option for the entirety of that age range (or) maybe it’s better for kids who are a little bit older … and it hasn’t been very easy to access either.”
Vaccine access is also key to increasing vaccination rate among that age group, said Smart, who is also a pediatrician in Whitehorse, Yukon.
“We need to make sure vaccines are accessible, that (it’s) easy for parents to get their child to the vaccine clinic. This is where we’re hearing ideas like school-based clinics, evening clinics (and) weekend clinics,” she said, adding officials should be looking at data to better understand how to get more kids inoculated.
“Do we need to target certain groups with more information? Those are some of the strategies that we really need to consider.”
In terms of communication, misinformation isn’t helping either, Smart added.
“That’s why conversations like this are so important, so that parents can hear from health-care professionals, particularly us in pediatrics … We know a lot about the health of children, and when you hear pediatricians strongly recommending a vaccine, it’s because we really believe that it will be helpful,” she said.
‘We need to work with parents’
In October, Dr. Ran Goldman, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, led a study on the willingness of parents to get their kids vaccinated against the virus.
The research, which involved a pair of surveys of 2,800 parents, the majority of whom were Canadian, offered varying results.
During the peak of the pandemic between March and May 2020, 65 per cent of parents with kids under 12 said they would get them vaccinated.
Those results were compared with a second survey between December 2020 and March 2021, after a vaccine for adults was approved. Then, less than 60 per cent of parents responded saying they would be willing to have their kids vaccinated.
“We were surprised,” Goldman recently told The Canadian Press, adding some parents believed that getting vaccinated themselves was fine, but too risky for their kids.
“We need to work with parents to understand the importance and the safety of vaccines for children specifically.”
Could time between first and second doses for kids 5-11 be changed?
Dr. Stephen Freedman, a COVID-19 researcher and pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, told Global News that the majority of children should get the vaccine to protect their vulnerable family members and loved ones.
“The unvaccinated population is taking up a disproportionate amount of hospital beds, and … even vaccinated adults can get quite sick with Omicron,” he said.
“We would not want our … children coming home with Omicron and then giving it to a parent who then ends up in hospital even though they’re vaccinated, so we still want to minimize the spread as much as possible to protect our population.”
Looking ahead, Smart hopes more children will get vaccinated.
“We have immunized millions of children now (aged) five to 11 with this vaccine, it’s been proven to be very safe and it’s proving to be effective in terms of preventing hospitalizations and post-COVID complications like MIS-C and long-COVID,” she said.
“I would strongly encourage all parents to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s safe, it’s effective, and it’s by far the best tool we have in our toolbox at this time.”
— with files from Jamie Mauracher, Reuters and The Canadian Press
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