COVID-19 vaccine uptake for young children in Ontario lower than experts expected

The number of children under the age of five being vaccinated against COVID-19 in Ontario is even lower than the relatively small number many experts had expected.

Shots for the youngest age group have been available for two months, but only about six percent of those kids have had their first dose.

dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s health official, said that’s lower than the numbers he thought he was seeing at the moment.

“I definitely want more families to consider vaccinating their children from six months to four years old,” especially high-risk children, he said in an interview.

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“We know that we have a higher percentage than five percent of children with an underlying medical illness that could predispose them to a worse outcome related to COVID and we would absolutely encourage those parents to consider talking to your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits.”

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Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the health sciences faculty at the University of Ottawa, said there are many factors at play that likely lead to low intake, but he still expected a higher number now.

“I’m not surprised it’s low, I’m surprised it’s so low,” he said.

Many people believe false stories that the pandemic is over and that children don’t get sick when infected with COVID-19, said Deonandan, who also pointed to misinformation about vaccine side effects.

The way messages about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy are communicated to parents matters, Deonandan said.

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“This should be worded like, ‘Parents, this is your decision and I want to give you all the transparent information I can so you can make a good choice here,'” he said.

“It’s a delicate balancing act here that we have to do when we talk about this. You don’t want to seem like you’re forcing something strange into your child’s body, because we see that the population is very sensitive to those kinds of stories. We don’t want to come across as fear mongers trying to lock up the world again…. But at the same time, you just want to advocate for the overall health of children.”

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The city of Toronto released a series of videos this week about COVID-19 vaccinations for children after one implied that children couldn’t play with friends if they weren’t vaccinated.

“This video missed the mark on that post and should not have been posted,” spokesman Brad Ross said in a statement.

“A series of five videos aimed at parents and carers about childhood vaccines has been paused while each is being reviewed to ensure the messages are clear and unambiguous: vaccines are available for children and they are safe.”

Pediatricians are who parents should listen to now, Deonandan said.

“No one trusts the epidemiologists anymore,” he said. “They don’t trust the government doctors anymore. Nobody trusts the virologists anymore. They only trust their child’s pediatrician, and those are the people who need to have this conversation.”

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Moore said the county hears from parents that one-on-one conversations are the most effective means of communication.

“When you visit your primary care provider, your pediatrician, you get your standard vaccinations at two months, four months, six months, 12, 15, 18 months – these are all opportunities for families to ask questions about COVID vaccination,” he said.

“We have work to do to continue our (official) message. It will accelerate as we move in and into the fall as we see that the risk of transmission will increase.”

dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, said he hopes vaccination for young children will accelerate through the fall, as he had expected an overall uptake of about 25 to 30 percent.

He attributed the slow start to the rollout that started over the summer, the misinformation circulating about the vaccine, as well as a general hesitation from parents when it comes to children of that age.

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“I’m a pediatrician, I know parents are always hesitant — especially for younger children and babies — whether it’s a vaccine or any drug,” he said.

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“One of the messages we need to tell people is that while that vaccine isn’t as effective as we’d like it to be for person-to-person transmission, it is certainly very effective against serious diseases and their complications.”

dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician, infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said there is also a complacency factor.

“(People think), ‘Oh COVID isn’t that bad. It’s just a mild cold in young children, I don’t really have to worry about it,” she said.

“There’s a lot of, I think, denial that kids, especially younger kids, can get it and get really, really seriously ill from it.”

Public Health Ontario said in its most recent report there was a notable increase in hospitalizations for infants under one year old, with 17 children for the week of Sept. 4 to 10 compared to eight the week before. Since the start of the pandemic, 1,268 children in that age group have been hospitalized for COVID-19 — a much higher rate than for older children and teens.

Children have a pretty good chance of contracting COVID-19 now that schools are back up and running, and it’s not just the immediate and possible long-term effects on the young children themselves that parents should keep in mind, Banerji said.

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“(They) can also spread it to other kids, can spread it at home, can spread it to grandparents,” she said.

“It’s something that can significantly affect a person’s life. And so I would do what you can to reduce the risk of transmission, which is basically vaccination.”

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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