Quebec's under-12 vaccination campaign advances amid rise in new COVID-19 cases

Lara Lymberiou, right, accompanies her sisters Olivia, 5, left, and Rosa, 7, for their vaccination, led by their mother, Melika, during the first day of vaccination for children aged five to 11 in Montreal, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - Quebec's effort to vaccinate children under the age of 12 entered its second day on Thursday, as the province reported the highest number of new daily infections since mid-September.

Health officials said 163,000 appointments had been booked as of 9 a.m. for children between the ages of five and 11, representing about one-quarter of eligible children. Premier François Legault congratulated the "brave" kids who got vaccinated Wednesday, on the first day of the province's pediatric immunization campaign.

"I'm proud of them, really," Legault tweeted, also thanking parents and the teams working at vaccine centres.

The Health Department reported that 7,244 children under 12 were vaccinated Wednesday. Quebec's government has said it hopes to give a first dose by Christmas to all children aged five to 11 who wish to be vaccinated. A school vaccination program will begin next week.

The pediatric vaccination effort took on new urgency in light of a rise in the number of new COVID-19 cases. Quebec health officials reported 902 cases on Thursday and five more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped by one from the prior day, to 210, after 20 patients entered hospital with the disease and 21 were discharged. The number of intensive care patients also dropped by one, to 45.

Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Montreal Children's Hospital, said vaccinating children could help head off a fifth wave of COVID-19, though it's hard to say what percentage of children will need to get immunized in order to make a difference. In a phone interview, he said the impact of child vaccination depends on not only how many children get vaccinated but also how quickly.

"If we're able to vaccinate more kids before the onset of high levels of community transmission, should there be a fifth wave this winter, there is a greater possibility that vaccinating children will be able to have a beneficial effect on the overall spread of disease in the community," he said.

"If we do it later, then it's possible that there's already widespread transmission in the community, so vaccinating this relatively small proportion of the population will not be as effective an intervention."

But while it's clear that children are overall far less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, he stressed that vaccinating kids is about protecting them and not just others. He said research suggests a few hundred Canadian children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 or with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is a serious condition that can develop a few weeks after mild infection.

Furthermore, he said vaccinations will benefit kids and families by limiting the disruptions caused by COVID-19 isolation and school closures and opening the door to resuming more social activities, sports and family visits.

Papenburg said he was encouraged by how many people have signed up to get their children vaccinated already and pleased to see the Quebec government has brought in measures to make the vaccine centres kid-friendly.

He also believes the government is taking the right approach by encouraging, rather than pressuring parents, to get their children vaccinated. In his opinion, more coercive measures — such as vaccine passports — would only backfire, and could lead to unvaccinated children being stigmatized.

"We want to encourage families and parents to get their child vaccinated because I think there's enough of a benefit there that it's worth doing," he said. "But at the same time, I think we need to acknowledge that families need to be comfortable and confident in their decision."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021.

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