The news that Pfizer has submitted a request for Health Canada to approve its COVID-19 vaccine for children is being heralded by some as the final stage in this ghastly pandemic. Finally, our two-week effort to crush the curve might be coming to an end, about 85 weeks later.
At present, Canada boasts some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 83 per cent of the country’s eligible population considered fully vaccinated, and more than 88 per cent having received at least one dose. That is a tremendous achievement. But there are still millions of unvaccinated children attending schools, daycares and family gatherings across the country, and the opinion among experts is that we won’t be able to put this pandemic to bed until both kids and adults are fully vaccinated (and until the rest of the world is vaccinated, too, but that’s another challenge entirely).
For Canada, that process could start before the end of the year, and provinces are already rolling out plans to start administering doses to children. Beyond approval from Health Canada and official review from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), provinces will need to receive special vials of Pfizer’s vaccine (doses are one-third the size of the adult version) before they can start getting shots in little arms. On Thursday, the federal government said pediatric vials should arrive in the country “shortly” after Health Canada’s approval.
There will certainly be some parents ready and eager to have their kids vaccinated, if mostly to calm their frantic nerves from 18 months of unrelenting lightning strikes. But many will not be so keen – at least, not at first. Indeed, Canada may be poised to confront a new frontier of hesitancy in this final stretch of the pandemic, whereby fully vaccinated parents opt against having their children vaccinated against COVID-19. According to recent polling from Angus Reid, only around half of parents with elementary-age kids say they would have their kids vaccinated immediately. Nearly one in five said they would vaccinate their kids eventually, but not right away.
On the surface, their hesitation might seem totally incoherent: why would parents who have themselves received COVID-19 vaccines – and presumably fared just fine – not want to offer the same protection to their kids, particularly after clinical trials on participants aged five to 11 showed the vaccine to be both safe and effective? And if part of the impetus for vaccination is collective responsibility – that is, to protect those most vulnerable to severe outcomes by stopping the chain of transmission – wouldn’t that impetus extend to children as well?
But reluctance among some parents to get their kids vaccinated is entirely understandable. For one, they’ve been told repeatedly throughout this pandemic that severe outcomes from COVID-19 in children is exceedingly rare, and that children are not particularly efficient (though that presumption is far from settled) at transmitting the virus. What’s more, many will have concerns about reports of myocarditis in youths and young adults who have received COVID-19 vaccines and will be justifiably worried about the prevalence of the complication occurring more frequently in younger children. Adults in this country were also made to endure a rollercoaster of evolving recommendations on which vaccines should be taken by whom, so it makes sense that parents would want their kids to sit out at first to avoid being taken along on a similar ride.
Good parents will eat probably-expired food that they would never feed their kids, and use their bodies to block traffic at crosswalks to allow their children to pass. Many will also line up for hours to receive a vaccine for which the long-term effects are unknown (but believed to be safe since serious reactions from vaccines tend to happen quickly, and mRNA vaccines have been in development for years), but will want to wait before allowing their children to receive smaller doses of the same vaccine. It’s a deeply instinctual practice – in the same way that penguin dads will starve themselves to keep their eggs warm and orca moms will stay awake for weeks to watch over their newborn calves. Some parents might see vaccinating their young kids as asking their children to sacrifice for the sake of older relatives, which is the inverse of the natural order of things (though, frankly, kids have already been doing this throughout the course of this pandemic).
Vaccinating young kids might be the final frontier in this pandemic, but it will bring with it a brand new challenge that will require patience, understanding and empathy. The odd commercial or call to action from the Chief Medical Officer of Health will be no match for the evolutionary instinct of protective moms and dads. This could be the final stretch in Canada’s pandemic, but we could still be a long way off from the end.
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