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A man and child walk into a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal on Nov. 23.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier François Legault spoke to parents directly on Tuesday, telling them he understood they may have worries about vaccinating their kids against COVID-19 but offering assurances that the shots are safe.

Vaccination for children between five and 11 years old – the latest cohort made eligible by Health Canada – will begin Wednesday at mass vaccination centres and next week in schools, Legault told a news conference. The two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be given at least eight weeks apart, the premier said.

“I am putting myself in the position of parents and I can imagine it can bring certain concerns,” he told reporters in Quebec City. “I want to reassure parents.”

Legault noted that the vaccine took longer to be approved for young children compared to adults. Additional tests have been done to ensure the vaccine is safe for young people, who will get a dose about one-third the size of the one approved for adults, he explained.

“The scientists say it’s safe, but it’s normal that parents are worried.”

Earlier Tuesday, Quebec opened booking appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations for children in the age group. Legault said that by mid-afternoon, about 80,000 appointments had been reserved.

Legault said parents should consider vaccinating their kids to protect them from COVID-19, to reduce classroom outbreaks and to protect vulnerable family members.

“Holding grandma and grandpa in your arms, not having to worry about giving COVID-19 to mom and dad – that has a certain value to children,” he said.

Legault said his government is aiming to administer first doses by Christmas to all children whose parents consent, adding that there are around 650,000 eligible children in the province.

Dr. Olivier Drouin, a pediatrician at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine children’s hospital, said it’s legitimate for parents to have concerns about side-effects, including cases of heart inflammation linked to mRNA vaccines, but he said the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh the risks.

While children who get COVID-19 tend to be less severely affected than older people, that doesn’t mean they’re not affected at all, Drouin said in an interview Tuesday. A few hundred children have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Canada and there have been hundreds of cases of children suffering complications from the disease.

“Those [cases] do exist; they’re severe,” he said. “They’re now preventable with the vaccine, and if we can prevent even a few of those hospitalizations, I think it’s worth taking the shots.”

Drouin said cases of heart inflammation linked to mRNA vaccines are extremely rare, with around 10 to 30 cases per 100,000 doses given, and in the far majority of recorded cases, people who develop heart conditions are hospitalized for one or two days and suffer no long-term effects.

Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, said younger children appear less likely to suffer from those rare side-effects than older adolescents. He said he expected that the lower dose of vaccine that will be given to children, as well as the increased interval between doses, will further reduce the risk.

Papenburg said vaccination will also help reduce community transmission.

Children under 12 currently account for one-quarter of all COVID-19 infections in Canada, despite accounting for 12 per cent of the population, he said in an interview Tuesday. There will be other benefits, he added, including less disruption of school and other activities.

“Vaccinating this part of the population will allow them to safely go back to all of the social activities that are so important to their development, their well-being and their mental health, in the safest way possible,” he said.

The province’s vaccine passport system, under which Quebeckers 13 and older have to show proof of vaccination to enter certain businesses the government deems non-essential, would not be extended to younger children once they are vaccinated, Legault said.

Among Quebeckers aged 12 and older, 88 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated while 91 per cent have received at least one dose.

Health officials on Tuesday reported 699 new COVID-19 cases in the province and five more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. There were 203 people in hospital, a drop of one patient, and the number of patients in intensive care remained stable at 46.

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