Jean-Christophe Boucher, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, has been compiling a data set about COVID-19 vaccines like no other.
Since last year, Prof. Boucher – who teaches at the university’s school of public policy and political science department – and his research team have collected every tweet about vaccination: every update from public-health units, every comment from an immunologist, all the rage related to shutdowns or vaccine passports, all the joy and relief of people scared for themselves or loved ones – and, of course, the daily flood of misinformation. He estimates it amounts to half a billion tweets so far.
Using machine learning, Prof. Boucher and his team are able to sort through them all in an effort to categorize and make sense of them. They have been classified into broad categories – provaccine and anti-vaccine, for example – and using algorithms developed by the research team, he’s able to determine the emotional undertone of each tweet – be it joy, love, surprise, sadness and so on.
When the prospect of vaccinating children aged five to 11 emerged, one emotion stood out more than any other, Prof. Boucher says: anger.
The question of whether the shot poses a risk to children has turned COVID vaccinations into a heated debate, both for parents who vehemently oppose them but also for those eager to get their kids inoculated, Prof. Boucher says. “It becomes a much more visceral, fundamental, almost reptilian reaction to protecting your young.”
Look no further than the social media firestorm ignited last weekend when Big Bird, the Sesame Street character who is forever six years old, tweeted that he had been vaccinated. “My wing is feeling a little sore, but it’ll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy,” the tweet said. Anti-vaxxers poured into the replies, denouncing the post as evil government propaganda that was brainwashing children.
Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said Friday that the agency’s review of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children should be completed within the next “one to two weeks.” With the impending approval of the shot, many parents will be faced with a decision much more fraught than the one made about their own inoculation. Parents’ instinct to protect their children will have some eager to get their kids to the front of the line – but will also make others want no part of it. But, as epidemiologists have stressed for months, vaccination is the best way to protect ourselves at an individual level and is our best way out of the pandemic. Now, the biggest public-health challenge of the pandemic is cutting through misinformation and fears.
“We have this negative bias where we’re looking for all of the bad. We’re fuelled by fear. So it’s created an interesting dynamic, and one that makes public-health messaging really challenging,” says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a Surrey, B.C.-based child psychologist and spokesperson for ScienceUpFirst, a national initiative dedicated stopping the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. “It has become an emotionally loaded topic, an emotionally loaded decision, and parents are feeling all of that. We have to begin at the very beginning, which is addressing that this decision is cloaked in that emotionality.”
The many questions parents may have also partly stem from the mixed messages they’ve been hearing throughout the pandemic. After all, we’ve been told all along that when children do get COVID-19, it is usually very mild.
“First it was, ‘Kids don’t get COVID at all.’ Then it was, ‘They don’t transmit.’ Then it was, ‘Oh, it’s only mild disease.’ We certainly know they do get it, and they definitely transmit to others,” says Dr. Janine McCready, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital.
While young children who contract the virus still “generally do have mild disease,” the much more infectious Delta variant means that it is a question of when, not if, unvaccinated children get COVID-19, Dr. McCready says.
Nearly 21 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada so far have been in people under the age of 19, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada. Among that age group, more than 1,700 have been hospitalized since the beginning of the pandemic, and 17 have died.
Given the risk factors involved, Dr. McCready knows she will vaccinate her own child when the time comes.
So far, however, polls show other parents aren’t so sure – even many parents who themselves are fully vaccinated are hesitant about vaccinating their children. Last month, a survey by Forum Research found that nearly 70 per cent of parents in Ontario who have kids ages 5 to 11 said they plan on vaccinating them once approval comes from Health Canada. Of the rest, 20 per cent said they remain unsure, while 10 per cent said they will not vaccinate their children.
Nationally, the picture is almost evenly split between parents who plan on vaccinating their kids and those who say they won’t be. Although 84 per cent of Canadians 12 and older are fully vaccinated, an Angus Reid Institute survey of Canadian parents, also from last month, found only 51 per cent of parents plan on vaccinating their children; 18 per cent said they plan on waiting but will get their kids immunized at some point, while 23 per cent said they will not be getting their kids vaccinated. The remaining were “not sure.”
A survey conducted last month by 19 to Zero, an organization dedicated to getting Canadians vaccinated, found that the most common reason parents gave for not vaccinating their kids was because they thought COVID-19′s risk to children was low. “Other safety risks,” natural immunity from a previous infection, fears around the risk of myocarditis and infertility and “something else” rounded out the list.
Virginia Valdivia, a travel agent in Winnipeg, and mother of two kids aged 15 and 11, worries that we don’t know the long-term effects, if any, of the vaccine.
Ms. Valdivia stresses that she and her kids follow public-health protocols, but for now she will not consider vaccinating her kids – a decision she may revisit in a year, she says.
“If we know all the side effects, then I can think about then. But right now, this is something I cannot even think about. It’s just a no.”
Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health for Ottawa Public Health, says public-health messaging and other initiatives have to start from understanding the concerns of parents like Ms. Valdivia, and then ensuring they receive the factual information they need to assuage those fears.
“This is something we’ve learned from the pandemic, that people will get information from their trusted sources – their peers, faith leaders, community leaders – and that we do need to consider ways to get through misinformation. Social media is very powerful in sharing misinformation, so we need to deliberately find these other influencers within communities,” she says.
She notes establishing trust is the common denominator that underscores all communications activities at Ottawa Public Health. Other public-health campaigns are introducing some family-focused flare to help get children and their parents excited about getting the jab.
This week, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, announced “Team Toronto Kids,” a vaccination campaign to convince parents and caregivers of kids 5-11 to get them immunized, featuring kid-friendly materials, including a cartoon family of superheroes.
Amid the messaging from all directions, many parents are still wrestling with the decision of whether or not to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.
Kit Thornton, a marine biologist who lives in Sidney, B.C., has a little voice at the back of her head making her question if getting her five-year-old son vaccinated is the right thing to do. Nevertheless, she’s been able to silence that inner whisper of concern that every parent hears and has chosen instead to listen to the science. “I do think though that the benefit of the vaccine outweighs the risks quite a bit,” she says.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, most of Marie Martens’ family, including her and her husband and 12-year-old son, are all fully vaccinated – but when it came to her eight-year-old daughter, she was scared, concerned about supposed fertility risks of the shot.
The Canadian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology has tried to combat such fears by stating unequivocally that “there is absolutely no evidence, and no theoretic reason to suspect that the COVID-19 vaccine could impair male or female fertility. These rumours are unfounded and harmful.”
But it is a common piece of misinformation you’re likely to find online if you spend enough time on Facebook – and one that caused Ms. Martens no shortage of hand-wringing.
Ten days ago, she received a phone call from her daughter’s school, informing her that her daughter would have to isolate after a fellow student had tested positive for COVID-19.
The resulting fear immediately changed Ms. Marten’s mind – she now says she will get her daughter immunized.
“As soon as they say she can get it, she’s getting it.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.