Ontario’s young children are heading back to class — but many aren’t yet vaccinated against COVID-19

With the return to in-person learning less that a week away, public health experts and parents say they’re worried a large number of Ontario children will be heading to class without being vaccinated against COVID-19.

The province’s immunization rate for the five-to-11-year-old age group has stalled and is currently at 45 per cent. What’s behind the lag is still unclear. The vaccine for younger children has been approved for use in Canada only since late November, so it may just be a matter of time. 

But more concerning for public health authorities is the possibility that vaccine uptake may be approaching its peak. Marisa Cicero, a social worker who’s a member of Ontario’s Children’s Vaccine Table, is “not thrilled” by the recent lag in children getting their COVID-19 shots.

“We have plateaued for the last three weeks or so. The number of shots in arms for this age group have been decreasing, and that’s something we really want to see turn around in the coming days,” Cicero said in an interview.

Officials are worried that already hesitant parents are viewing Omicron  as less of a threat due to reports that it’s milder than previous variants, and that surging infections in fully-vaccinated people give the impression that the vaccines aren’t working.

Not vaccinated but not an ‘anti-vaxxer’

Monique Findlayter is not vaccinated, nor is her daughter. She says she’s not an “anti-vaxxer” and has no problem with other vaccines that have been around longer. But she says she’s worried about potential side effects from the recently developed COVID-19 vaccines.

“I’ve chosen not to get vaccinated because I just don’t feel like there’s been enough study on this vaccine. I have to think about what the side effects are for my six year-old,” Findlayter said in an interview.

“I’m not comfortable.”

All the COVID-19 vaccines were subjected to clinical trials and have been administered to millions of people around the world. Although side-effects do occur, they are extremely rare, and experts say they are safe.

Findlayter also questions the effectiveness of the vaccines due to the current wave of infections and hospitalizations caused by the Omicron variant. (Monique Findlayter)

But Findlayter also questions the effectiveness of the vaccines, pointing to record levels of infections and hospitalizations and the return of public health restrictions, even though 90 per cent of adults in the province are vaccinated.

“If we had progressed and everything was still open, then maybe I’d be like, ‘You know what? I’ll get the first shot and let’s see how it goes.’ But when we’re back at square one and we are in the same place like we were a year ago, I have no faith in this vaccine.”

Vaccines and Omicron

While restrictions are back in Ontario, along with surging infections and hospitalizations, the number of people being treated in intensive care is lower than in April of 2021 — something experts attribute to the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines, which weren’t widely available last spring.

“That is true that for the vast majority of children who are infected with Omicron, they do have very mild symptoms and some can be asymptomatic. But that being said, vaccination is protective against hospitalization and severe outcomes from Omicron,” Karen Born, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said in an interview.

Children between the ages of five and 11 years of age are some of the first to get vaccinated for COVID-19 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press)

In the push to vaccinate young children, public health authorities must focus on parents. For some individuals, and even entire communities, the problem is a lack of trust in science and health-care providers, according to Born.

“There are a number of different strategies being tailored to various communities across Ontario to try to build that trust and reduce that hesitancy,” she said.

Some of those strategies involve public health teams working directly with community leaders to organize local vaccine clinics that respond to specific needs and concerns.

Mom is worried

With schools set to re-open on Monday, the vaccination rate is also a concern for Lindsay Richardson, a mother of two who is expecting a third child.

Her eight year-old son has been vaccinated but because she doesn’t turn five until April, Richardson’s daughter will be heading back to kindergarten without the protection offered by vaccines.

“It’s not a matter of if my kids will get COVID, it’s a matter of when. And I want to make sure that when they get it, they’ve both been double vaccinated,” Richardson said in an interview.

Lindsay Richardson and her family are in favour of children getting vaccinated against COVID-19. (Lindsay Richardson)

“I wanted her to be double-vaxxed before I brought a new baby home,” she added. 

“Since Omicron has become so  transmissible, it’s more about keeping her safe and keeping her out of hospital and keeping her from having any long term effects from getting COVID.” 

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