Ottawa’s children’s hospital is running booster-shot clinics for education and child-care workers amid growing calls for provincial governments to prioritize vaccinations for school staff before students return to the classroom.
All provinces except Saskatchewan have extended the holiday break or moved students to virtual learning – an opportunity, doctors and school officials say, to fast-track educators for their boosters as an additional layer of protection against the highly contagious Omicron variant.
CHEO, a pediatric health care and research centre in Ottawa, will provide an after-school clinic at the hospital on Friday specifically for teachers, education staff and child-care workers in Eastern Ontario. The hospital said it expected to open more clinics next week.
“We know that in-person learning is essential for the mental health, physical health, well-being, and the development of children,” Alex Munter, head of CHEO, said in an interview on Wednesday. “Making sure we can improve the protection for teachers and education workers by making sure they can get their boosters is one piece of the puzzle.”
While the onset of the Omicron variant has led to many more breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, data show that boosters substantially improve protection against infection, which could help slow the spread of the virus and reduce staff absenteeism.
Doctors say provinces have a chance now to shore up protections, including masks, ventilation and vaccinations, before children return to school buildings.
Teachers and child-care workers told CHEO staff it is difficult to find booster appointments, and “so we are marshalling our resources to be able to respond,” Mr. Munter said.
“We need layers of protection,” he added. “The access to testing is a layer of protection, and boosters are another layer of protection.”
Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network, said anyone who works in indoor settings, such as schools, should be prioritized for boosters.
“If we want to have a chance of having schools open up again, making sure that we’re optimizing the prevention and the protection for all of those who are going to be in the school environment is really important,” Dr. Hota said. “Now that we have some school closures occurring, we should be taking advantage of this time to offer boosters.”
When asked why the government has not prioritized education workers for boosters, Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the province has accelerated booster doses to anyone 18 and over.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told reporters last week that many school staff were prioritized for the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, so they would come up earlier for other doses.
Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said many teachers are not able to book their booster dose until late January. The B.C. government extended the holiday break, and students will return to in-person learning next week.
“Unfortunately, January may be the most difficult month. If keeping schools open is indeed a priority, it makes no sense not to supply boosters to this work force,” Ms. Mooring said. “We are concerned … school closures will be a significant issue in January.”
Similarly, Paul Wozney of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said that the next 10 days would be an “opportune time” to prioritize school staff for boosters that “would protect the system from staff shortages” when in-person learning resumes.
The government said on Wednesday that after an extended holiday break, students would learn online next week. It made no mention of prioritizing boosters for education workers.
Mr. Wozney said he hoped employers would support staff getting boosters next week, even if their appointments are during the school day.
In the meantime, and in the absence of systematic efforts led by governments, some pharmacists and family doctors have set aside appointments for educators and child-care workers.
Nili Kaplan-Myrth, an Ottawa family physician, has been running large vaccination events she calls “jabapaloozas.” She is hosting another one on Sunday for school staff, day-care employees and other essential workers. She said this “little window of time” is an opportunity to make schools safer so students don’t suffer more months of learning disruptions.
Dr. Kaplan-Myrth called it a failure that her province had not prioritized educators for vaccines, especially while schools are closed to in-person learning.
“We decided to do it, because nobody was doing it.”
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