With students in Manitoba just days away from a return to in-person classes, nearly half of the province’s children age five to 11 have not yet had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
As of Thursday, 63,824 kids in that age range had their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to data provided by the province. That’s about 51 per cent of the roughly 125,200 kids age five to 11 in Manitoba.
While almost 15,000 appointments were booked for children in that age group on the first day they were eligible for the vaccine last November, that initial enthusiasm seems to have tapered off.
Julie Lajoie, a research associate in medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, says while the number is “really kind of good,” considering that five- to 11-year-olds have only recently become eligible to get their shots, there is work to be done.
But she says another possible reason the uptake isn’t higher right now is the belief COVID-19 is relatively mild for kids.
While it’s not as deadly as some other viruses, that doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed, Lajoie said.
COVID-19 “can be really severe” for kids, she said.
“Even if the majority of cases is mild, there is some cases that are severe, where kids get really sick. Long-term COVID exists in kids too, and we don’t know the long-term impact of a viral infection.”
She pointed to other viruses that may underscore those potential long-term risks. For example, new research suggests the Epstein-Barr virus — a widespread human herpes virus that is among the most common viruses in the world — may later help trigger multiple sclerosis, Lajoie notes.
Southern health has lowest rate for kids
The rate of vaccination among Manitoba kids appears to be consistent with the regional trends the province has already seen among adults.
The Southern health region — which has the lowest overall vaccination rate in the province — also has the lowest vaccination rate for kids age five to 11, at 36.4 per cent.
The Winnipeg health region — which has the highest overall vaccination rate — also has the highest rate for young people, at 58.4 per cent.
It’s followed by the Prairie Mountain region, with a 49.6 per cent first-dose rate for kids, Northern Health, where the rate is 49.4 per cent, and the Interlake-Eastern region, where it’s 45 per cent.
WATCH | How doctors are working to increase vaccination rates in children age 5 to 11:
While it isn’t surprising, ” it is really sad to see so low uptake in the Southern region, because we know how badly they were affected by the virus in the fall,” Lajoie said.
She says increasing vaccination rates for kids will rely not only on explaining why it’s important and safe, but increasing access as well.
“Yes, in Winnipeg its easy to book an appointment and get there, but if you’re rural and the only vaccination centre is not directly in your town and you have to go somewhere else, its hard.”
Too soon for return to class: Safe September
Lauren Hope, an organizer with the advocacy group Safe September MB, thinks the vaccination rate for kids is about what should be expected, given the time in which the vaccine has been available to them.
But the fact that hasn’t been a long period is why Hope, who is also a mother of two, and her organization — which has pushed for stronger safety measures in schools throughout the pandemic — believe the reopening of schools to in-person classes next week is premature.
“We simply did not have access to … [vaccines] before November and it’s only January. My own child still isn’t eight weeks from their first dose,” said Hope, referring to the interval between first and second doses recommended for kids by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the Manitoba Pediatric Vaccine Advisory Committee.
She notes that even though her 10-year-old was vaccinated on the second day that shots became available in November, he won’t hit the eight-week mark until next week — after in-person classes have resumed.
“I am so frustrated because I have done everything I’ve been asked to do,” including getting her own vaccinations and getting her kids vaccinated as soon as possible, Hope says.
At a news conference Thursday, at which officials said Manitoba schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual COVID-19 cases, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said given the widespread transmission of COVID-19, it’s expected there will cases in schools.
“We need to to expect that we need to manage our risk, not eliminate it,” he said.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen said at that news conference that the provincial government has consulted with pediatricians, who stressed the importance of being in class for the mental health and well-being of students.
And Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force, said at a press conference on Wednesday that children who only have one vaccine dose do still have some protection.
But Hope does not think that protection is enough.
Kids in the five to 11 age group “are going back to crowded classrooms next week with very few mitigations in place to stop the spread of the virus,” she said.
The provincial government, she says, “has essentially given up on containing the virus and has seemed to take a ‘let it rip’ attitude — which I personally believe is deplorable.”