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School children play in a Toronto public school on April 6.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario health units are developing plans for the vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 once COVID-19 shots are approved for them.

Toronto Public Health said Monday that it had formed a planning group that includes health partners, school boards, community representatives and the province, while top doctors for Peel Region, Middlesex-London, Hamilton and Ottawa also said they were making arrangements.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said plans are being made now so that young children can be vaccinated as soon as possible after Health Canada authorizes a COVID-19 shot for them.

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“This will help keep our kids safe and provide greater protection in our schools and communities across the city,” he said in a statement, noting Toronto was home to approximately 200,000 children in the 5-to-11 group.

Peel Region’s top doctor said his public-health unit is “ready to deploy a vaccine strategy” for that cohort, pending approval from Health Canada and guidance from the province, and would keep residents informed on a timeline.

The top doctor for the Middlesex-London said his health unit was working with pediatric care providers to ensure clinics were “appropriately designed to support young children and young families.”

“We are working with families and children to make sure that we’ve thought of all of the potential aspects of this,” Chris Mackie said in a statement. “We very much hope and expect to hit the ground running as soon as that announcement is made.”

Ottawa Public Health said it is working with stakeholders on different scenarios for vaccinating the city’s 77,000 children in that age group.

Those scenarios, which will depend on timing of vaccine approval, include looking at increasing staffing and clinic locations as well as outreach to children and their families.

Hamilton’s Medical Officer of Health said her health unit was hoping to announce a plan for vaccinating young children as soon as possible.

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“We recognize the anticipation and interest community members are feeling as they wait for a potential announcement regarding COVID-19 vaccine approval for this age group, and the peace of mind and strong protection being fully vaccinated would mean to these young people and their loved ones,” Elizabeth Richardson said in a statement.

Children born after 2009 are currently not eligible to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada. Pfizer-BioNTech has said it intends to seek authorization soon for a vaccine intended for children aged 5 to 11.

In Toronto, the city’s top doctor said Monday that public health is aiming to be ready for a November start to their immunizations.

Eileen de Villa noted that COVID-19 infection rates have been increasing among children aged 4 to 11 in the past three weeks. Last week, that cohort had the highest rate of infection in the city for the first time since the start of the pandemic, she said, at 64 cases per 100,000 population.

That trend isn’t surprising given that children born after 2009 can’t be vaccinated against COVID-19, Dr. de Villa said. But she urged families to get vaccinated to protect those who can’t get the shots.

“It is absolutely key for parents to get vaccinated to help ensure the safer reopening of school and the ability to provide ongoing in-person learning,” she said.

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She also flagged that “work that has yet to be done” in vaccinating people between the ages of 30 to 49, many of whom may be parents. She said 25 per cent of that age group in the city is not fully vaccinated.

Ontario health units are responsible for administering COVID-19 shots with guidance from the provincial government.

Provincial data as of Monday showed 80 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 70 per cent were fully vaccinated.

Vaccination clinics have been run at or near Ontario schools in the weeks since students have returned to classes in an effort to boost vaccination for eligible students, staff and families.

School staff in Ontario must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the virus.

No such rule is in place for students, but Dr. de Villa wrote to the city’s board of health this month, asking that it request the province to require COVID-19 vaccination for eligible students. The board voted in favour of her recommendation Monday.

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In her Sept. 13 letter to the board of health, Dr. de Villa referenced the nine other diseases covered under the Immunization of School Pupils Act, which students enrolled in school must be vaccinated against.

COVID-19 is currently not one of those designated diseases, and Dr. de Villa wrote that the safety and effectiveness of approved vaccines has been proved in children 12 and older.

“Given the current epidemiology of COVID-19 and the need to support the safe reopening of schools, it [is] recommended that the province require COVID-19 vaccination for students who are eligible based on their age/year of birth,” she wrote.

The province’s top public-health doctor has said the province is looking into adding COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of those required for students by law, which allows for some exemptions.

– With files from Noushin Ziafati.

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