Ontario’s top doctor says children will not be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine until the day they reach their 12th birthday, meaning the province won’t distinguish between those born earlier or later in the calendar year – a source of frustration for some doctors and parents who were hoping for a less disruptive fall school term.
British Columbia and Alberta have made vaccines available to all young people born in 2009. Ontario, however, has said that children need to be 12 years old to be eligible. The province’s approach means that thousands of Grade 7 students with birthdays late in the year will be eligible only after they start school.
Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said on Tuesday that the province received “legal advice” and won’t open eligibility until a child turns 12.
“It was our interpretation to follow the trials and the science to be 12 and up. I realize a couple of provinces haven’t done that, but anyone turning 12 will be eligible and we will have vaccine for them this year,” he said.
With six weeks remaining until students are back in the classroom, provincial vaccine data shows 65 per cent of young people aged 12 to 17 have received one dose, while 42 per cent have been fully immunized. Ontario has yet to release its back-to-school plan, but health officials have indicated that a high vaccination rate would help in preventing disruptions to the fall term.
Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, said that the provinces holding firm on age, as opposed to birth year, are creating unnecessary barriers. (Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized in Canada for children 12 and older. The Moderna vaccine is approved for those 18 and older.)
“Make it simple – and making it simple says if you’re born in 2009, you’re in,” Dr. MacDonald said. “For me, the object of all our immunization programs is to maximize uptake and to minimize the number of obstacles in your way.”
She added: “If I had a limited amount of vaccine and I know that age makes a huge difference in severity of disease … I would be really picky because I want to ensure I’ve got enough for the highest-risk [people]. It’s not where we are right now.”
Lisa Glover, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health, said that the province’s approach to making the vaccine available to anyone born in 2009 or earlier is in line with the approved use of the Pfizer shot. “This has helped reduce confusion around eligibility, make booking appointments easier for Albertans and, most importantly, allows us to safely vaccinate as many Albertans as possible,” she said.
Ontario resident Mary Jo Nabuurs’s daughter turns 12 in December. Ms. Nabuurs said that she has been asking local officials why the province has not made almost-12-year-olds eligible for the vaccine. “I’ve been asking for a rationale for a long time – and I hear crickets,” she said. “It’s really frustrating.”
Ms. Nabuurs booked an appointment for her daughter next week in Lambton County, a three-hour drive from her home in Aurora, because she heard that the health unit was vaccinating those born in 2009.
Kevin Churchill, a spokesman at Lambton Public Health, said in an e-mailed statement that the health unit follows provincial eligibility criteria, but “if someone presents at one of our clinics on the fringe of the age eligibility, a determination can be made on an individual basis at the clinic based on guidance from the Medical Officer of Health.”
Ms. Nabuurs said on Tuesday that she is unsure if she will drive her daughter that far to get the vaccine. “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said.
Another Ontario parent, Pamela Libralesso, said she is concerned that students who are unvaccinated would face different isolation rules in the fall. Her son celebrates his 12th birthday a week after school starts in September, so is not yet eligible for his first dose.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I’m pretty angry.”
Ms. Libralesso, who lives in Barrie, said that some parents may choose not to vaccinate their children, adding, “but the more that are vaccinated, the safer everyone is.
“It seems like an easy fix; an easy win for everyone.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.