Rising hospitalizations of children and babies in Ontario due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 that has seared through the province in recent weeks have caused many parents to rush to get children vaccinated.
However, the guidance in Ontario and all of Canada is that kids must be at least five to receive a dose. Everyone born in 2017 will need to wait for their birthdays, and not a day sooner — which has been a surprise to some.
The recent deaths of two young children due to COVID-19 have brought the current policy into question.
But infectious disease experts are mixed, or waiting on more information, before advocating for eligibility to be moved up for everyone born in 2017.
A child-sized dose of Pfizer was approved by Health Canada in November 2021 for those aged five to 11, including anyone born in 2016, all of whom would be turning five by the end of 2021.
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family doctor and medical anthropologist based in Ottawa, said she’s had to decline vaccine appointment booking requests from many parents who have children under five.
“I’m inundated with requests to give our pediatric Pfizer to kids born in 2017 … but we got a request from somebody who just turned four in December,” she said, explaining that that would be too soon based on the guidelines.
“I’d like to be able to give all the 2017 kids their vaccine and it is a huge concern … but the 2017 kids who aren’t yet five, that’s trickier because they aren’t approved,” she said.
While parents are understandably worried due to Omicron, children under five are not eligible, as Pfizer’s recent trial data indicated that two child-sized doses of its vaccine was not producing the immunity response hoped for that age group, said Kaplan-Myrth.
“My understanding is that the study showed that that isn’t enough for the littlest ones. So the reason to not give our three-year-olds the same things for our seven-year-olds … is not because it’s dangerous, but because it’s not enough,” she said.
That study, published by Pfizer last month, explained that the trial will be updated to include three child-sized doses. It’s more clear that Health Canada should speed up approval for a booster dose for those aged 12-17, as that is available in the U.S., she said.
Kaplan-Myrth said it’s possible the guidance could be updated for those born in 2017, and if it is she will be ready to vaccinate anyone eligible.
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Ontario’s Ministry of Health told the Star it is following the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s policies and that if bookings were open to everyone born in 2017, they could be vaccinating “much younger children who are not turning five years old until later in the year.”
Last week, Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said at a press conference there is a “significant difference” in a dose for a four-year-old compared to a five-year-old and the province doesn’t have access to the correct dosing yet.
On Wednesday, multiple hospitals, including the Hospital for Sick Children, CHEO (formerly the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) in Ottawa, McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton and Kingston Health Sciences Centre, released a joint statement calling for pregnant individuals to get vaccinated, to protect themselves and babies through antibodies they can pass on.
Forty-three children under the age of five have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ontario in the last two weeks, according to data from Public Health Ontario. It’s unknown how many are hospitalized due to COVID-19, or are in hospital for a different condition and have also tested positive for the illness.
The Star’s reporting on child hospitalizations this week indicated that while doctors are concerned, most children are experiencing mild illness. But those who are vaccinated overall have the mildest symptoms in any age group.
Currently about 44 per cent of those five to 11 in Ontario have been vaccinated with at least one dose, and 1.7 per cent are considered “fully vaccinated,” according to Public Health Ontario.
The province may be unlikely to change its guidance as it’s early in the year and most children born in 2017 have not turned five yet, said Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at Termerty Faculty of Medicine and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Banerji says children under 5 who are in school environments should be able to get their dose due to the risks.
“If they’re going to a congregate setting like school, where you know that COVID’s going to spread … vaccination will really help and help reduce the symptoms,” she said.
When data comes out from vaccine trials on younger age groups it will be easier to make decisions, but for now, some changes can be made to policy, particularly in those group settings, she said.
“Hopefully there’s some flexibility there,” she said.
Olivia Bowden is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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