Less than half of all eligible children in Ontario who turn 12 this year have received a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, leaving large populations of kids in Grade 7 classrooms still vulnerable to the virus.
New provincial data provided to the Star shows that not only do children born in 2009 have double-dose rates of less than 50 per cent, they also lag behind the rates among their older peers and are far below the provincial average.
The new vaccination rate data comes at a time when COVID cases in publicly funded Ontario schools are on the rise. In the last two weeks alone, more than 1,500 cases have been reported in over 800 elementary, middle and high schools, including some 1,400 in students and 160 in staff.
Ontario lagged behind several provinces in waiting until August to allow children turning 12 later in the year to get vaccinated.
That relatively recent news may still not have reached some parents, said Dr. Tara Kiran, a family physician at the St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team.
But that’s only part of the story. She has also noticed “complacency” among her own patients who just haven’t gotten around to getting their 12-year-old the vaccine.
“Often just that call and that nudge is helpful, for people who are on the fence,” she said.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, now known as Comirnaty, was opened up to Ontarians age 12 in late May, but those with a birthday later in year were not eligible until several months later.
That’s because of legal advice health officials got on how to interpret the company’s COVID vaccine trials, which were only done on kids who had already turned 12. The province changed course on this in mid-August, allowing everyone born in 2009 to get the shot. Individuals have to wait 21 days between the first and second doses, but over a month has now passed since this policy change, leaving enough time for even kids with later birthdays to get full protection.
Moderna’s vaccine, now known as Spikevax, was also approved by Health Canada for kids 12 and up in late August. On Wednesday, the province announced that they recommend Pfizer for young adults aged 18 to 24, because of the rare risk of heart inflammation conditions after doses of Moderna, mainly in men.
The Star asked the Ontario Ministry of Health for a breakdown of COVID vaccination rates by age for eligible children. The data provided shows that children born in 2009 (those who have turned or are turning 12 this year) have first- and second-vaccination rates that are much lower than older kids.
For those born in 2009, 67.7 per cent have received one dose. That compares to 79.8 per cent of children born in 2008, 83.9 per cent of children born in 2007, 83.1 per cent of children born in 2006, 81.4 per cent of children born in 2005, and 82 per cent of children born in 2004.
The differences between the age groups for second doses are even more stark. So far, just 48.9 per cent of kids born in 2009 have received two doses, compared to 71 per cent of children born in 2008, 75.4 per cent of children born in 2007, 75.1 per cent of children born in 2006, 73.5 per cent of children born in 2005, and 74 per cent of children born in 2004.
About 158,000 children were born in 2009 in Ontario, according to the province.
A ministry spokesperson said a reason kids born in 2009 have comparatively low vaccination rates is simply because they have had less time to be vaccinated than those in other age groups. The province will continue to work with public health units to promote vaccination uptake in youth, and the spokesperson noted there are more than 640 vaccination clinics in or near publicly funded elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools to provide access to vaccines for eligible students and their families, as well as educators and school staff.
Kiran said she believes school vaccination clinics are key to reaching 12-year-olds.
Requiring proof of vaccination to get into spaces like restaurants and gyms “has motivated many young adults and late teens to get vaccinated but it won’t necessarily work in this group,” she said. “We need a different strategy and I think getting them vaccines in the school makes a lot of sense, and moving towards mandatory COVID vaccination for those 12-17.”
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, has called for COVID shots to become part of the slate of vaccines needed to attend school, as has the Toronto District School Board.
Although most kids have mild symptoms if they get COVID, they could bring it home to vulnerable family members, and when there are outbreaks at school it is hugely disruptive to learning.
“There are real consequences not just for the kids but for the families,” she said.
Dr. Elizabeth Muggah, a family doctor and president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, said a recent survey her organization did of 1,500 parents found that one in five were not comfortable with their 12-to-17-year-old child getting a COVID vaccine. That hesitancy increased the younger the child.
“This is not about people who are strongly anti-vax, these are people who just had ongoing questions on quite specific things,” she said. “We heard an openness to having the conversation.”
The main reasons reported in the survey for holding off on vaccines for eligible kids were concerns about side effects, clinical trials, research and testing.
While the vaccines have been thoroughly vetted and given to millions of people around the world, she said “it’s OK to not feel comfortable if you’ve got a 12-year-old child, and it’s OK to have questions and it’s totally normal to want what’s best for your child.
“Come in and talk to us.”
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases expert who was a member of Ontario’s now disbanded vaccine distribution task force, said while severe COVID is not as common in kids, U.S. hospitals have seen recent spikes in pediatric hospitalizations.
“And we have a vaccine that will prevent that from happening,” he said. It’s also important to recognize the “spillover beneficial effects of vaccinating children” who then are less likely to pass on the disease to others.
“When you magnify this at a population level, you really have a much more significant proportion of your population vaccinated and you quell the pandemic faster,” he said.
Phillip Anthony, manager of the Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams and Community Outreach at Michael Garron Hospital in east Toronto, said the communication around the changing eligibility rules for those born in 2009 might have resulted in some hesitancy.
“We also know it’s only been available to this age group since mid-August, so generally it takes a little bit of time for these things to pick up momentum,” he said, noting that we may see an uptick in vaccinations in kids turning 12 this year towards mid-October.
He also pointed out that many children are influenced by their parents’ decisions to get vaccinated or not, which could play a role in low turnout in younger groups if parents are hesitant.
“Normally your parents’ values are what you’re prone to follow,” he said. “It’s just a matter of people getting comfortable with this age group and I envision it will be the same when they roll it out for the five-to-11-year-olds as well.”
The Last Shot is an occasional series examining what it will take to reach the unvaccinated and move us past the pandemic.
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: [email protected]
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe