The COVID-19 vaccine will be added to the province’s routine school immunization program this year in an effort to make jabs more readily available to students aged 12 and older and boost uptake.
During a briefing Thursday, Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the vaccine implementation task force, announced a plan to improve vaccination rates among youth.
"This fall, immunization teams will attend all schools with students aged 12 to 17 to provide both first and second doses to students. We’re going to look at the epidemiology, the vaccine uptake, and other data to help guide this work," she said.
Reimer said just 66.4 per cent of Manitobans aged 12 to 17 have received one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine; 52.3 per cent have been fully immunized, which is below the provincial average of 80 per cent with at least one shot.
Lower immunization levels among youth can be attributed to the fact they were the last to become eligible and there are fewer severe outcomes in this group, Reimer said.
However, she said, there are still incidents of severe outcomes and deaths in youth in Manitoba, which is why the province recommends everyone get fully vaccinated as soon as possible – no matter their age.
"We also want the youth to be able to get back to normal life. We want to have a successful school year without having to switch to remote learning, without having people have to isolate at home and missing that in-person schooling," Reimer said.
"It's really critical that even though a younger person certainly has a lower risk of a severe outcome, there's many other reasons on top of protecting themselves from severe outcomes, that the vaccine is still extremely beneficial for them."
Reimer said the province plans to start targeting schools in communities that have the lowest immunization rates to help reduce potential barriers to immunization and increase protection for the whole community.
When and if a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children aged 5 to 11, the province will also offer those shots in schools. Health Canada approval for the younger age group could come this calendar year, Reimer said.
It's estimated 125,000 children aged five to 11 live in Manitoba.
She noted the consent process for COVID-19 immunization at schools will follow the same procedures as routine school-based immunization programs, with a customized consent form sent home with children to parents.
COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory, Reimer noted.
"Like everything else in health care, whether it’s a medication, a surgery, where parental consent may not be available, we will do the individual assessments of competency of the students to consent on their own, but that would not be the main approach," Reimer said.
"The main approach will be that they’ll be able to use these customized consents to have their parents review and sign ahead of time, both COVID or not COVID," Reimer said.
Other vaccines — including those for meningitis, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough — will be offered to students who have fallen behind in immunizations due to the pandemic, Reimer said.
As of Thursday, there was no firm timeline for when the vaccine campaign would conclude but it is expected to ramp up as early as this month.
When asked whether the vaccination status of students and staff would have to be disclosed to school administration as part of the province's plans for the return to the classroom, an official with Manitoba Education deferred questions on the subject to public health.
Reimer said she has not been part of any discussions related to disclosure of immunization status of students and staff returning to school.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press