More than two million Canadian children ages five to 11 are now eligible for Pfizer-BioNTech’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine — bringing an opportunity to get closer to reducing transmission of COVID-19 in the country .
But what will the rollout of vaccines for this age group do for national vaccination coverage?
As one of the last remaining segments of the population to be vaccinated, children ages five to 11 will play a major role, health experts say.
“Every additional person who gets vaccinated is a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
A boost for national rates
Doctors and mathematicians say it’s too early to say what uptake in this age group will look like, as many childhood vaccination programs started just days ago. The use of the pediatric vaccine was approved by Health Canada last Friday, with the first doses arriving in the country Sunday evening.
“What we can do is look at vaccination coverage in 12- to 17-year-olds as a kind of proxy for how kids and parents feel about vaccine,” said Caroline Colijn, a math professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the Canada 150. Research Chair Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health.
“Across Canada, I think about 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one first dose. So if we imagine that five to 11 [year olds] If it were around that same number, that would increase Canada’s overall vaccination coverage to nearly 85 percent.”
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The goals for achieving herd immunity — the point at which enough of a population is immune to a virus that it cannot continue to spread viable — have shifted over the past 19 months.
Earlier in the pandemic, the threshold suggested by some was about 70 percent. More recently, however, health experts say that threshold should be raised because of the highly contagious delta variant.
“With the original COVID strain, if we were at 80 or 85 percent, we would probably have very, very low transmission and not have to worry,” Ladha said.
“But the fact that we’re here now with delta, which is so much more transmissible, means we need herd immunity closer to 90 percent, 95 percent.”
Canada is not close to those percentages yet. As of Thursday, 79.2 percent of the eligible population ages five and older had been fully vaccinated, according to CBC’s vaccine tracker.
Some doctors also note that it can take some time for some parents to be ready to have their children vaccinated.
“There’s probably some hesitation on the part of the parents,” said Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology.
“I hope a lot of that will go away once they see that there don’t seem to be any major side effects with this vaccine.”
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Last week, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said modeling teams have done “a lot of work” to look at the trajectory of the pandemic and how vaccinating younger age groups could play into it.
Booster shots for people with declining immunity, combined with vaccination of the younger age groups, will help control the pandemic, she said. But there are also other factors.
“It all depends on the level of uptake in this population, as well as the timing of the epidemiology and the various ups and downs we may experience over the coming weeks and months,” Tam said.
The first pediatric COVID-19 vaccine vial used in Toronto. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press)
In early November, children under 12 had the highest incidence of reported cases nationally, according to federal health data, as a large majority of eligible age groups are now fully vaccinated.
“Children in this age group are the last major segment of the population to be vaccinated, and they represent an increasing number of new cases,” Labos said.
“If we can vaccinate them, that will help lower the COVID numbers and increase vaccine numbers.”
Recording will vary
Both experts and some research data suggest that parents’ plans to vaccinate their children may differ from country to country.
An online survey released last month by the Angus Reid Institute — and done before the pediatric vaccine was approved — found that 51 percent of Canadian parents with children ages five to 11 said they would let their child vaccinate.
But about 23 percent of the 812 parents surveyed said they would not get the vaccine for their children.
Across the country, the roll-out of vaccines for children aged five to 11 began this week. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press)
In Quebec, a recent survey found that about 63 percent of parents agreed or somewhat agreed to have their child vaccinated.
In Ontario, 54 percent of the 161 parents who participated in the Angus Reid Institute survey said they will have their child vaccinated.
In Alberta, however, the rate is slightly lower: 46 percent of the 127 parents who responded to the Angus Reid Institute survey say they will vaccinate their child.
“In different provinces, it will vary, because families really depend on information that the government gives them, of course, and on public health policy,” said Ladha.
“In Alberta, the severity of COVID in children has decreased a lot, and that has led many families to believe that there is really no need for their children to be vaccinated against COVID,” she said.
“If the reality is that the COVID infection itself can have much more serious consequences – both short and long term – than the vaccination itself.”
Sentiment about the vaccine for younger children varies across the country, according to a recent national survey conducted ahead of Health Canada’s approval. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press)
Back to ‘normal’
But even as kids across the country are starting to get the vaccine, epidemiologists have noted that it’s not herd immunity or failure. In practice, they say, the closer we get to that threshold, the better.
Some doctors have said herd immunity could be unattainable due to a variety of factors involved in COVID-19, suggesting the focus should instead be on overall vaccination coverage.
In Alberta, Ladha said she is focusing on leaving children vaccinated alone and answering any questions parents may have, such as why they should vaccinate their child to protect the community.
It’s important to remember that there are children in our communities, she said, and we need to protect them from the virus.
“It’s a step towards herd immunity. It’s a step towards ending this very long pandemic.”
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