All students in Grade 7 and up — as well as sixth-graders with early birthdays — will be eligible to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before the start of the 2021-22 school year, under Manitoba’s immunization projections.
But it’s uncertain whether those pupils will be able to attend in-person classes on a full-time basis in the fall.
“I am very pleased, as I am sure parents are, that adolescents are being included in the vaccine rollout,” said Dr. Sergio Fanella, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba, in an email Wednesday.
“This is another huge step in the right direction overall for achieving herd (or) community immunity, and in terms of resuming in-class learning.”
Shortly after Health Canada approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on patients who are 12 and older Wednesday, Manitoba officials announced plans to expand immunization criteria to include anyone who is in this age group or older by May 21.
(Ottawa had approved the Pfizer jab for teenagers aged 16 and up, as well as youth who are high-risk and between the ages of 12 and 15, prior to Wednesday, but Manitoba’s initial rollout only targeted adults.)
The medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force welcomed Wednesday’s development, noting the expansion — to include approximately 100,000 youth — speeds up the timeline when it comes to reaching herd immunity.
“The more Manitobans we have eligible, the faster we can get to 70 per cent of us being immunized. If only 50 per cent of us are eligible, even if all of us got the vaccine, we can’t possibly have 70 per cent of all of Manitoba immunized,” said Dr. Joss Reimer.
The rollout among youth will likely follow suit with the age-based approach, but officials are waiting on national recommendations, Reimer said.
She added the province will rely on established practices related to mature minor consent when it comes to vaccinating youth against COVID-19. In Manitoba, 16-year-olds have the legal ability to make health-care decisions for themselves.
The province plans to inoculate youth at supersites and pop-ups, citing the ability to quickly administer doses via these models. Those who receive their first dose of vaccine before June 15, no matter their age, are expected to receive a second dose by the end of July.
During an afternoon pick-up game outside Isaac Newton School Wednesday, father Archie Casilan — who has received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — said he’s happy to schedule an appointment for his 14-year-old as soon as possible, if she wants one.
Casilan said he plans to educate his Grade 9 daughter on the benefits of the vaccine and hopes other parents will do the same with their children. “If she does feel comfortable getting the vaccine, I’ll encourage her,” he said. “The sooner we can make it to a point of herd immunity, the better for us.”
Meantime, another parent at the junior high school in Winnipeg’s North End is unsure whether her children will be vaccinated just yet, owing to concerns about potential side-effects.
“We don’t know how it’s going to be, the side-effects, for kids, so I really don’t know,” she said. “But I want it (for myself), for the safety of my kids… no parent wants their children to get COVID,” said Christine Flamiano, who is set to get a jab later this month.
Dr. Terry Klassen, CEO and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute of Manitoba, said both teachers and family doctors will play key roles in providing accurate information to youth and caregivers about the vaccine.
“Schools are a very important venue to look at scientific literacy,” said Klassen, a professor of pediatrics and child health at the U of M.
As youth start to get vaccinated, the researcher will monitor uptake levels, real-world effectiveness and potential side-effects.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Public Health said Wednesday the ability for youth to receive the Pfizer vaccine is a step forward, but it is too early to speculate on what the upcoming school year will look like.
Among the many factors that will determine whether restrictions will be loosened are: virus case numbers and rates, increases seen over time, transmission sources, health system capacity, test positivity rates, and vaccine uptake.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva and Malak Abas
, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press