By this time next week, children 5 to 11 will be getting COVID-19 vaccines across Western Canada.
The first shots are expected Wednesday in Saskatchewan, and in Manitoba as early as Thursday. Alberta is opening up its booking system Wednesday morning with the immunizations starting Friday. In British Columbia, children will begin receiving shots on Monday.
The start of pediatric vaccines marks the next major phase for COVID-19 immunizations, which governments and public-health officials have held up as the quickest and safest way out of the pandemic. Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 5 to 11 last week and the first doses arrived in Canada this week.
Young, unvaccinated children have had the highest rates of COVID-19 infections recently. And while they are at a far lower risk of serious complications from the disease than adults, there have been cases of children becoming seriously ill or dying. Health officials have noted that they can pass on the disease to other more vulnerable people.
Vaccines for teenagers have already shown a lower uptake than adults, largely attributed to skepticism among parents – including some who have had vaccines themselves. And there are already signs that it could be even lower for younger children.
In B.C., which has among the highest vaccination rates in the country, with more than 90 per cent of adults with at least one dose, government survey data show just under 60 per cent of parents of young children intend to get them vaccinated right away, and another 20 per cent plan to get them vaccinated eventually.
In contrast, the government in Alberta, which has consistently had among the lowest vaccination rates in Canada, has said its surveys show only half of parents intend to get their young children vaccinated. Premier Jason Kenney has pointed out, however, that the province has been able to close the gap with other places in Canada significantly, and he hopes higher uptake is also reflected in vaccine rates for children.
Mr. Kenney said parents should study the data about vaccines and make the best decision for their families, but he has made it clear that immunization is the best way out of the pandemic. Health Minister Jason Copping said the government would use the lessons learned earlier in the pandemic to boost vaccine uptake; he pointed, for example, to northeast Calgary, which lagged the rest of the city and now has among the highest vaccine rates in the province.
Alberta has decided not to administer COVID-19 vaccines in schools. Mr. Kenney said school clinics for teenagers weren’t terribly successful early in the pandemic and using centralized clinics is the easiest way to reach a lot of people quickly.
In contrast, Saskatchewan plans to have vaccine clinics in more than 100 schools and is taking steps to ban protests near schools. Manitoba also plans to set up clinics in schools eventually, after initially focusing on government clinics and pharmacies.
What they have in common is that all provinces are expecting strong demand, at least initially, and some of that has already started.
Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan reported technical issues with their online booking systems, but said the problems were quickly remedied. In Manitoba, more than 21,900 appointments were made by Tuesday, out of approximately 125,000 eligible five to 11-year-olds. In Saskatchewan, more than 12,000 appointments were booked for pediatric vaccinations by midday Tuesday.
--By James Keller