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David Thomas King school in Edmonton on Oct. 15.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Alberta and Manitoba will not subject children under 12 to their vaccine passport systems once those young people are eligible to receive the COVID-19 shot, according to the two provinces.

Health Canada is reviewing whether to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for children 5 to 11, and expects to release its decision within weeks. Regulators in the United States, late last month, authorized emergency use of the drug for children in this age group.

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The virus ripped through schools this fall, although children and teenagers rarely die or end up in hospital after contracting COVID-19. But reservoirs of unvaccinated people, regardless of age, help keep the virus circulating in the general population and experts are preparing for pushback from parents reluctant to immunize their children.

Alberta Health said the province’s vaccine passport system, which the government calls a “restrictions exemption program,” will not apply to young children. People in Alberta must be fully vaccinated, or have a recent negative COVID-19 test which they took at their own expense, in order to access non-essential services such as restaurants and indoor events including concerts or professional hockey games.

“While we wait for Health Canada to determine if vaccines are approved for children 5-11, there are currently no plans to extend vaccine requirements under the restrictions exemption program to this age group,” spokeswoman Lisa Glover said in a statement.

Under the current rules, youth who turn 12 in early 2022 will be subject to the passport system, even though they cannot yet access the vaccine and weeks must pass between doses. Ms. Glover said the government is reviewing the program to ensure “youth in this transition period are not negatively affected.”

Manitoba, in a statement from the government, also said it would eschew vaccine requirements for young children. “At this time, when children under the age of 12 become eligible for the vaccine, the proof of vaccine requirement will not apply,” the statement said.

Quebec said it would assess its passport system, which applies to people 13 and older, when officials deliver immunization recommendations for those under 12. Ontario said it will provide additional details on its immunization requirements in the coming weeks. British Columbia said it has not decided whether its vaccine passport system will apply to those 5 to 11, although it confirmed children turning 12 next year will need two doses to be in compliance with provincial regulations.

While most Canadian jurisdictions have restrictions based on vaccine status, the systems are controversial. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reversed his pledge not to implement such a program after the province’s vaccination campaign stalled and unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelmed hospitals. Alberta loosened the passport rules for some indoor sport, fitness and performance activities for people under 18, even though everyone over 12 is eligible for the shot.

In Alberta, 87.6 per cent of eligible residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to 79 per cent when the province rolled out its passport program in mid-September. Children under 18 need consent from a parent or guardian to access the vaccine; however, health care providers can make exceptions if they feel the patient is mature enough to make their own decision.

Lana Potts, a family physician at Piikani Nation’s Aakom Kiyii Health Centre, said exempting children under 12 from the passport system makes sense because, otherwise, unvaccinated youngsters would be penalized for their guardian’s decision.

“How do we punish a child when they do not have the capacity [to get vaccinated] themselves?” she asked.

Dr. Potts also noted children do not have equal access to health care, and while COVID-19 can harm youth, the consequences have been far less severe compared to the rest of the population.

“Although possibly not the most protective move, I understand where they are coming from in recognizing the right of the parent.”

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