A child wearing a blue shirt is being vaccinated by a nurse wearing a white shirt
Nurse Laura Bailey administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose to eight-year-old Jack Woodhead at the IWK COVID-19 vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

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Concerns about the slow uptake of COVID-19 vaccine in the 5 to 11 age group is top of mind for a panel of Canadian experts hosting a live virtual town hall event later this week.

According to the latest data — and as outlined Friday in a statement from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer — only 51% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have had a first COVID-19 vaccine dose while 88% of the population 12 and older have had at least one dose. Of those 12 and older, 83% are fully vaccinated.

In Nova Scotia, the number is slightly higher than the national average, with 64% of 5 to 11 year olds having received a first dose of vaccine since becoming eligible in November. Of those between the ages of 12 to 14, 88% have received two doses.

“It is concerning that as of the beginning of January, fewer than half of Canadian children in that 5 to 11 age group had been vaccinated,” Christine Chambers, scientific director of both the CIHR Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health, and Solutions for Kids in Pain (SKIP), said in an interview.

“I’ve got kids in that (5 to 11) age group and I have them in the age group above, and it took only a week for that proportion of 12 to 17 year olds to get their first dose. So there’s definitely something going on here.”

Christine Chambers standing in a brightly lit room smiling at the camera.
Dalhousie University professor and pediatric pain researcher Christine Chambers. Photo: Contributed

Chambers, who’s also a professor in the departments of psychology and neuroscience as well as pediatrics at Dalhousie University, is one of the panelists for Thursday’s town hall. Health and science experts will answer questions from children, caregivers, and educators about vaccines and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The first COVID-19 vaccines for kids aged 5-11 were approved in Canada in November, and yet uptake has been slow. Many parents and kids have made the choice to get the shot, but many more remain unvaccinated as a new variant sweeps across the country,” notes a description of the event.

“If you are on the fence, know that it’s absolutely normal to have questions about your children’s health. Tune into a live Q&A with physicians and researchers across the country and get the best information available.”

‘Why should I bother?’

The event is being hosted by ScienceUpFirst, a collective of independent scientists, researchers, health care experts and science communicators whose goal is to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. One of the taglines for Thursday’s town hall is “together, we can move the needle.”

“Some of what I hear from parents is they know that COVID is relatively mild in kids and so they think, ‘Why should I bother,’” Chambers said.

“So I think some of the conversations that we’ll be having really talk about not only does this protect your child, but there’s interesting research coming out that’s showing the potential long term benefits of having the vaccine in terms of reducing the risk of having long COVID.”

Chambers said the lower vaccine uptake in that age cohort might also in part be due to the fact that few children between the ages of 5 and 11 enjoy getting needles. She said that’s why it’s important to discuss how parents can support their children to have positive vaccination experiences. Helping it hurt less makes it easier for parents to get their kids to those appointments.

Another possible reason for the slow uptake? Pandemic fatigue.

“Let’s face it, parents are tired. We’ve been at this for a long time. It’s been almost two years. We’re coming off of a very busy period for parents over the holidays, disrupted schooling, disrupted childcare. Parents have been scrambling to balance work and family,” Chambers said.

“I think for some families, sometimes it just comes down to logistics and being able to make it a priority. Those are some of the things that I’m hearing, but I think there are lots of reasons.”

‘This is really important for kids’

The expert panel is expected to discuss issues like possible vaccination risks, the data around things like myocarditis, concerns around long-term effects, and when toddlers might be safely vaccinated.

“It’s really a great opportunity to hear directly from experts who are at the cutting edge of science, who can be trusted around how you can make the best decisions for your children,” Chambers said.

“The key message people will be hearing is that the COVID-19 vaccines that are approved in Canada are safe, they’re effective, and they’re saving lives…This is really important for kids, it’s really important for Canadians, it’s something we can each do to help the health care system and to keep people safe.”

As a psychologist, Chambers will be sharing insights into pieces of the pandemic that are related to people’s emotions, thoughts and feelings and strategies that can help. She said while no one has enjoyed any stage of the pandemic, anxiety is especially high right now.

She intends to provide tips for parents about issues that include coping with the stress of getting children vaccinated in addition to how to talk to – and prepare them for – the appointment. She’ll also address the importance of routine and structure during these times of uncertainty, as well as the anxiety many parents and children are feeling about the return to in-person classes.

“The first step is really just validating their feelings, and everybody’s situation is different, so I think acknowledging that this is tough. And for some people, it’s even more complicated and harder,” Chambers said.

“One size does not fit all, and recognizing that there is more help available so if anxiety feels completely out of control for children or parents, that there are supports available.”

ScienceUpFirst also joined forces with organizations across Canada to declare January 27 National Kids and Vaccines Day.

Described as a collaboration between organizations including Children’s Healthcare Canada and the Sandbox Project, Jan. 27 has been dubbed National Kids and Vaccines Day and will “help move the needle (pun intended) and promote vaccine confidence to protect our largest unvaccinated cohort of Canadians.”

The free virtual town hall takes place on Thursday at 9pm AST. People can register for the Zoom event here.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. It seems obvious, but vaccination clinics could easily be set up in school gyms around the province. It would still be optional, but this would address the issue of access for most children.

    1. Absolutely, look at NL – they used school-based clinics and have over 75% vaccination rate for school age children.

  2. Perhaps people don’t trust officialdom because officialdom has proven to be untrustworthy.

    Technical experts have brought us glycophosphate, nuclear weapons, clearcutting, thalidomide and addictive apps. Perhaps this isn’t a time for technical expertise but for wisdom.

    1. And other technical experts have been some of the most vocal opponents of all of those things. In particular, if you look at the backgrounds of the technical experts say “pro” and “con” your list, you’ll see pretty marked differences in where they work and under what models. One list is pretty driven by corporate driven capitalism