TORONTO — Schools and an information campaign targeting parents will play important roles in Ontario's effort to vaccinate young children against COVID-19 once shots are approved by Health Canada, the province's health minister said Wednesday.
Christine Elliott said schools will be a likely setting for vaccinating kids aged five to 11, though perhaps not during school hours.
"Some of them may be on weekends or in the evenings, because I think a lot of parents — if you're speaking about vaccinating a five-year-old — most parents would want to be with their child," she said.
Elliott said the province is also working on vaccine information that will be available to parents, and dismissed concerns that comments about vaccine hesitancy by the premier Tuesday undermine the government's message about safety.
"We have, since the beginning, encouraged everyone who was able to receive the vaccine to do so and we're continuing that message with children aged five to 11 once the vaccine does become available," she said.
"That doesn't deviate from our message at all. We want everyone who can receive the vaccine to do so."
Ford said that he wants children to get immunized once the shots are approved, but he understands if parents are hesitant to vaccinate their five- or six-year-old children.
Pfizer's data on kids between five and 11 showed a safe and strong immune response from two doses, which are one-third the size given to teens and adults.
Liberal house leader John Fraser said Ford's comments on vaccine hesitancy were unhelpful.
"The premier's answer should have been: I know you have questions and we're going to answer your questions, and we have a plan to answer your questions, because vaccines, they're safe and effective," he said.
The New Democrats said Ford's comments undermine confidence in both the vaccine itself and the government's rollout plans.
"We see the government kind of seeming to pander to some of those uncertainties, and it's very unfortunate because we know that this government has always been behind the eight ball when it came to rolling out vaccination strategies," said education critic Marit Stiles.
The medical lead of Manitoba's vaccination effort said parents should look to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization as a reliable and trustworthy source of information, once it has reviewed Pfizer's pediatric data. What has been seen in the United States is promising, said Dr. Joss Reimer.
"It makes a lot of sense to be cautious about these decisions for your kids," she said.
"Even though we know that young children have lower risks of severe outcomes, the benefits of the vaccine to them still outweigh the risks of the vaccine."
In its latest report, the Ontario science table, which advises the government on the pandemic, suggested four main strategies for increasing vaccine uptake in children and youth, including using schools as clinics, recommendations from health-care providers, reminders and public health communication campaigns.
"Increasing COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake in children and youth will help allow them to continue safely returning to pre-pandemic activities by reducing transmission, hospitalizations, and severe outcomes," said the report released late Tuesday.
In Saskatchewan, the government is also planning to offer the vaccine in schools, as well as libraries and community and sport centres. That province has said first doses could be available in early or mid-November, and it should receive enough to give all eligible kids a first shot.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health for Alberta, has said her province is making plans for the pediatric vaccine roll-out as well.
Ontario's science advisory group said communications about the vaccine for children should address misinformation and foster positive attitudes to vaccination. The imagery shouldn't be focused on needles, rather on the benefits, such as protecting grandparents, keeping schools open and participating safely in recreational activities.
In the Middlesex-London public health unit in southwestern Ontario, returning to normal has been a big part of messaging for young people, and a whopping 92.4 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose — almost 10 percentage points higher than the provincewide figure. It's also higher coverage than every other age group under 65 in the region.
Alex Summers, the associate medical officer of health, said the health unit has reached teens through Instagram live events, Twitter and TikTok, as well as partnering with spokespeople such as players for London's OHL team, and holding online town halls for parents.
"(On) TikTok, our communications team has been amazing … find messaging that speaks to people who might be on that forum, so messaging that says vaccines available, vaccines safe, vaccines are key to getting back to life."
The health unit is planning to make its mass vaccine clinics more family friendly, including longer appointments, dedicated messaging for kids, and having stickers for little ones after their needle.
Using schools after hours will also be a part of their plan, as will primary care doctors and nurse practitioners, Summers said.
It will also be important to consider the different development stages for young children and teenagers, such as planning for scenarios in which youth want to get vaccinated but their parents do not, and the ability to consent, the Ontario science table report said.
Ontario reported 321 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and nine more deaths. There were 134 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19, and 16 of those patients were people from Saskatchewan.
Nearly 88 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more than 84 per cent have received both doses.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press