More than two million Canadian kids aged five to 11 are now eligible to get Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 pediatric vaccine — and with that comes 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 rates?
As one of the last remaining portions of the population to get vaccinated, kids aged five to 11 will play an important role, health experts say.
“Every additional person that gets vaccinated is a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Alberta in Edmonton.
A boost to national rates
Doctors and mathematicians say it’s too soon to tell what the uptake in this age group will look like, as many immunization programs for kids started just days ago. Use of the pediatric vaccine was approved by Health Canada last Friday, with first doses arriving in the country on Sunday night.
“What we can do is look at the vaccination uptake in 12 to 17 year olds as sort of a proxy for how children and parents are thinking about vaccine,” said Caroline Colijn, a mathematics professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health.
“Canada-wide, I think it’s about 87 per cent of 12 to 17 year-olds had at least a first dose. So if we imagine that five to 11 [year olds] would be around that same number, then that does boost the overall Canadian vaccination rate to closer to 85 per cent.”
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The goalposts for achieving herd immunity — the point at which enough of a population is immune to a virus that it cannot continue to viably spread — have shifted during the past 19 months.
Earlier in the pandemic, the threshold suggested by some was about 70 per cent. But more recently, health experts say that threshold should be higher because of the highly contagious delta variant.
“With the original COVID strain, if we were at 80 or 85 per cent, we would probably have very, very low transmission and not have to worry,” said Ladha.
“But the fact that we’re here now with delta, which is so much more transmissible, means that we need a herd immunity of closer to 90 per cent, 95 per cent.”
Canada isn’t near those percentages yet. As of Thursday, 79.2 per cent of the eligible population aged five and up were fully vaccinated, according to CBC’s vaccine tracker.
Some doctors also note it could take time for some parents to be ready to have their children vaccinated.
“There probably is some hesitancy on the part of parents,” said Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology.
“I’m hoping a lot of that is going to go away once they see that there don’t appear to be major side-effects going on with this vaccine.”
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Last week, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that modelling teams have been doing “a lot of work” to look at the trajectory of the pandemic and how vaccinating younger age groups could factor in.
Booster shots for those with waning immunity, paired with vaccination of the younger age groups, will help to get the pandemic under control, she said. But there are other factors, too.
“It all depends on the level of uptake in this population, as well as the timing of the epidemiology and the different ups and downs that we might experience in the coming weeks and months,” said Tam.
At the start of November, children under 12 nationally 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 large segment of the population that needs to be vaccinated, and they’re making up a rising number of the new cases,” said Labos.
“If we can vaccinate them, that’s going to help bring COVID numbers down and help bring the vaccine numbers up.”
Uptake will vary
Both experts and some survey data suggest that parents’ plans for vaccinating their children could vary across the country.
An online survey released last month by Angus Reid Institute — and done before the pediatric vaccine was approved — found that 51 per cent of Canadian parents with kids in the five to 11 age group said they would get their child vaccinated.
But around 23 per cent of the 812 parents polled said they wouldn’t get the vaccine for their children.
In Quebec, a recent survey found that about 63 per cent of parents agreed or somewhat agreed to getting their child vaccinated.
In Ontario, 54 per cent of 161 parents who took part in the Angus Reid Institute survey said they will get their child vaccinated.
In Alberta, though, the percentage is a little lower, with 46 per cent 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 there is really a reliance of families on information given to them by the government, of course, and public health policy,” said Ladha.
“In Alberta, there’s been a lot of diminishing of the seriousness of COVID in children, and that has led a lot of families to believe that it really isn’t necessary for their children to be vaccinated against COVID,” she said.
“When the reality is that COVID infection itself can have much more severe consequences — both in the short and long term — than the vaccination itself.”
Getting back to ‘normal’
But even as kids across the country start to receive the vaccine, epidemiologists have noted that it is not herd immunity or bust. In practice, they say, the closer we get to that threshold, the better.
Some doctors have said that herd immunity could be unattainable, because of a variety of factors at play with COVID-19, suggesting that the focus should be on overall vaccination rates instead.
In Alberta, Ladha said she is focusing on just getting children vaccinated, as well as answering any questions parents might have, like why they should vaccinate their child to protect the community.
It’s important to remember that children exist within our communities, she said, and we need to protect them from the virus.
“It’s a step toward herd immunity. It’s a step toward ending this very long pandemic.”