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'This is not an innocuous virus': B.C. stresses urgent need to vaccinate children

With B.C. on the cusp of removing COVID-19 restrictions in the face of Omicron, Dr. Bonnie Henry reiterates the need for vaccines for five-to-11-year-olds
Child receiving COVID vaccine
B.C. health officials are urging parents to get their children vaccinated, as rates among the 5-11 population remain low.

With B.C. on the cusp of removing many of its COVID-19 restrictions, the province is stressing the urgency of getting children vaccinated.

“We do really want to protect young children,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said at B.C.’s Feb. 15 COVID briefing.

B.C. has long pinned its pandemic response strategy on high vaccination rates, and take-up has been generally strong. As of Feb. 14, 90.9% of eligible adults in B.C. have received two doses of vaccine.

Vaccination rates among children, however, are much lower.

Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine, for five-to-11-year-olds, received Health Canada authorization in November 2021, and B.C. began its first-dose rollout on Nov. 29. With an eight-week interval between doses, second doses just started on Jan. 24.

As of Feb. 11, B.C. Centre for Disease Control data shows 54% of children aged five to 11 in B.C. had received their first dose of Pfizer pediatric vaccine; just 12% had received two doses.

Henry said it’s important to get those numbers up in the face of the continuing Omicron wave.

“This is not an innocuous virus, and it can have very severe effects, particularly in people who do not have a strong ability to respond, who do not have a strong immune response, (who) don’t have the protection of vaccination,” she said.

Impacts of long COVID in children remain unknown: Henry

One of those potentially severe effects is long COVID.

“We still don’t have a lot of insight into the long-term impacts on younger children from infection, even though it does, thankfully, seem to be relatively mild in younger kids,” Henry said.

“We still don’t have a good understanding of children and longer-term impacts of this virus and infections in children, so that’s an important thing we’re still trying to get information about. We’ll need to monitor this over the long haul.”

Henry said vaccination has been shown to protect against long COVID with previous variants, and that trend seems to be holding true with Omicron.

“The risk of having long-term symptoms that persist when you’re vaccinated is at least half,” she said.

22 school-age children hospitalized, 3 in critical care

Vaccination has also been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and the risk of ending up in an intensive care unit (ICU).

The latest BCCDC data shows that, between Jan. 14 and Feb. 10, there were 1,430 confirmed positive cases in unvaccinated children aged five to 11; 1,410 cases in children with one dose of vaccine; and six cases in children with two doses.

(Note that total case numbers may be affected by restricted testing across the province. Testing rates for the 5-11 age group during the Omicron wave peaked at 312.6 per 100,000 on Dec. 22 and dropped to 45.2 per 100,000 by Jan. 30.)

Hospitalization data (from Jan. 11 to Feb. 7) shows 22 children ended up hospitalized: 16 unvaccinated, and six with one dose. For critical care admissions, there were three among unvaccinated children – and none with either one or two doses.

No deaths were reported in that time period.

How to register your child for vaccination in B.C.

Henry urged any parents who are still hesitating about getting their children vaccinated to talk to a doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist about the benefits and safety of the pediatric vaccine.

“It is important. We do know that vaccination is safe in that age group. The pediatric formulation is working well,” she said.

In order to be vaccinated, five-to-11-year-olds must first be registered in B.C.'s Get Vaccinated system, after which time an invitation will be sent (by text or email) to book an appointment.

You can find all the information online at B.C.'s pediatric vaccine page, or call the central vaccination line at 1-833-838-2323.

What about children younger than 5?

Younger children, in the 0-4 age group, are not yet eligible for vaccination and have been hit harder by serious cases of COVID-19.

BCCDC data shows 3,258 cases in that age group between Jan. 14 and Feb. 10.

Hospitalization data (from Jan. 11 to Feb. 7) shows that 63 children in the 0-4 age group wound up in hospital and 10 in critical care.

No COVID deaths were reported in that time period.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are working on vaccines for children under age 5. You can find out more about where those processes stand in this CBC report.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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