More than two million Canadian children aged five to 11 are now eligible to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 pediatric vaccine – and with it comes an opportunity to get closer to reducing COVID-19 transmission in the country.
But what will the roll-out of vaccines for this age group do for national vaccination rates?
As one of the last remaining sections of the population to be vaccinated, children aged five to 11 will play an important role, health experts say.
“Every additional person being vaccinated is a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
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Doctors and mathematicians say it is too early to say what enrollment in this age group will look like, as many immunization programs for children started a few days ago. The use of the pediatric vaccine was approved by Health Canada on Friday, when the first doses arrived in the country Sunday night.
“What we can do is look at vaccination admission in 12- to 17-year-olds as a kind of proxy for how children and parents think about vaccines,” said Caroline Colijn, a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Canada 150. Research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection, and public health.
“Across Canada, I think about 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds received at least a first dose. So if we imagine that five to 11 [year olds] would be about the same number, it would increase the overall Canadian vaccination rate to closer to 85 percent. ”
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The goal posts to achieve herd immunity – the point where enough of a population is immune to a virus that it can not continue to spread viably – has changed over the last 19 months.
Earlier in the pandemic, the limit was proposed by some around 70 percent. But recently, health experts say the threshold should be higher 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 are here now with the delta, which is so much more transferable, means we need a herd immunity of closer to 90 percent, 95 percent.”
Canada is not close to these percentages yet. As of Thursday, 79.2 percent of the eligible population from age five and up were fully vaccinated, according to CBC’s vaccine tracker.
Some doctors also notice that it can take time for some parents to be ready for get their children vaccinated.
“There’s probably some hesitation on the part of the parents,” said Dr. Christopher Labos, a cardiologist in Montreal with a degree in epidemiology.
“I hope a lot of it will go away when they see that there do not seem to be any major side effects to this vaccine.”
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Last week, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam that model teams have done “a lot of work” to look at the course of the pandemic and how vaccination of younger age groups can help.
Booster shots for those with declining immunity, paired with vaccinations of the younger age groups, will help get the pandemic under control, she said. But there are other factors as well.
“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 that we may experience in the coming weeks and months,” Tam said.
In early November, children under 12 nationwide had the highest incidence of reported cases, 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 account for an increasing number of new cases,” Labos said.
“If we can vaccinate them, it will help bring down the COVID numbers and help bring up the vaccine numbers.”
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Both experts and some research data suggest that parents’ plans to vaccinate their children may vary across the country.
An online survey released last month by the Angus Reid Institute – and conducted before the pediatric vaccine was approved – found that 51 percent of Canadian parents with children in the age group of five to 11 said they would get their child vaccinated.
But about 23 percent of the 812 parents surveyed said they would not get the vaccine for their children.
In Quebec, a recent survey showed that about 63 percent of parents agreed or to some extent agreed to have their child vaccinated.
In Ontario, 54 percent of 161 parents attended Angus Reid Institute study said they will have their child vaccinated.
In Alberta, however, the percentage is slightly lower, with 46 percent of the 127 parents who responded to the Angus Reid Institute survey saying they would vaccinate their child.
“IN different provinces, it will vary because families really rely on information given to them by the government, of course, and public health policy, “Ladha said.
“In Alberta, there has been a huge reduction in the severity of COVID in children, and it has led many families to believe that it is really not necessary for their children to be vaccinated against COVID,” she said.
“When the reality is that COVID infection in itself can have much more serious consequences – both in the short and long term – than the vaccination itself.”
Back to “normal”
But also as children all over the country start receiving the vaccine, epidemiologists has taken note that it is not herd immunity or bust. In practice, they say, the closer we get to that threshold, the better.
In Alberta, Ladha said she focuses on getting children vaccinated, as well as answering any questions parents may have, such as why they should vaccinate their child to protect society.
It is important to remember that children exist in our community, 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.”