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A health care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, at a clinic in Toronto, on Jan. 7, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 12 and older on Wednesday, prompting Alberta and Manitoba to announce they would offer the shot to kids in that age bracket as part of their efforts to combat COVID-19.

The vaccine announcement comes after a promising trial out of the United States, which Health Canada’s chief medical adviser said shows the shot is both safe and effective for kids in that age group.

“It will also support the return to a more normal life for our children, who have had such a hard time over the past year,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser.

The shot had previously only been approved for those aged 16 and up.

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The American trial of more than 2,200 youth between the ages of 12 and 15, which used the same size doses and two-dose requirement as the vaccine for adults, recorded no cases of COVID-19 among vaccinated kids.

Sharma said about a fifth of all COVID-19 cases in Canada have occurred in kids and teens.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was the first to announce that starting on Monday, his hard-hit province would make vaccines available to everyone aged 12 and up.

Those born in 1991 and earlier can start booking their vaccines on Friday, while those born between 1992 and 2009 can make an appointment starting Monday.

The news comes the day after high COVID-19 transmission rates forced the province to announce the closure of schools. Kenney said students would move to online learning starting Friday, with the measure set to last for two weeks.

Thousands of students in higher grades in Edmonton and Calgary have already been learning from home.

“I know this is a real disruption for both kids and parents, but with the current level of community spread, we have 80,000 staff who are in self-isolation, and we’ll soon reach a point where many schools will not be able to operate,” Kenney said.

Kenney also introduced tighter caps on outdoor gatherings and customer capacity in retail stores.

Federal legislators are also set to debate Wednesday night whether to invoke the Emergencies Act in connection with the situation in Alberta, which would allow further measures such as shutting down interprovincial travel.

Manitoba announced its own plan to vaccinate youth later Wednesday, saying it aims to have those 12 and up eligible to book a vaccine by May 21.

However, the medical lead of the province’s vaccine effort said it hasn’t yet been determined whether teenagers will be prioritized for immunization over older people.

In Ontario, provincial officials said they were working on a plan to immunize children 12 and up.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said vaccines could be administered through schools, with both doses given before the next school year, but did not give a precise timeline.

Meanwhile, public health officials and politicians alike were working to reassure Canadians about the safety of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization urged those who were not at high risk of COVID-19 infection or complications to wait for another shot.

“You know, what I say is that if your life is in danger, and you need to call 911, to get help to save your life, it does not matter if that call is made on an iPhone or a Samsung or even a flip phone,” said Sharma, the Health Canada adviser. “It does what it is supposed to do.”

New Brunswick health officials reported the province’s first death of someone who developed a blood clot after receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday, just hours after Alberta did the same.

“It is important to remember that the risks of dying or suffering other severe outcomes from COVID-19 remain far greater than the risk following AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 increased by three per cent across Canada in the most recent seven-day period compared with the previous week, the country’s top public health doctor said in a statement Wednesday.

That includes an average of 1,458 people who were being treated in intensive care units – a five-per-cent increase over the previous week, Dr. Theresa Tam said.

Deaths from the virus have levelled off, but the rise in hospitalizations and intensive care admissions could change that, she warned.

Also on Wednesday, Quebec reported a lower COVID-19 infection rate than Nova Scotia – a first since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The province logged 104 active cases per 100,000 people, while Nova Scotia had 108.

A day earlier, Ontario reported 247 active cases for every 100,000 people, while Alberta had 534.

Also on Wednesday, the federal government announced that Canada is sending desperately needed medical supplies to India as the COVID-19 pandemic in that country spirals out of control.

Global Affairs Canada said Ottawa is shipping up to 25,000 vials of the antiviral drug remdesivir and as many as 350 ventilators from its emergency stockpile in response to the critical situation.

In India, images of jam-packed hospitals and sick people sharing oxygen masks on the street are driving home the scope of the country’s latest wave, with COVID-19 deaths reaching a new high of 3,780 in the last 24 hours as daily infections rose by more than 382,000.

Health columnist André Picard outlines how kids could be back in classrooms in the fall, starting with getting all adults vaccinated by Canada Day, followed by a program of vaccinating children with an approved reduced dose ahead of school resuming in September.

The Globe and Mail

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