B.C.'s child vaccine rate for COVID-19 is among the lowest in Canada. Why have efforts stalled?
Experts say provincial messaging that COVID-19 doesn't spread in schools could be contributing
Bree Cropper, a mother of four in Penticton, B.C. said her family is staunchly "pro-vaccine, pro-science." Still, she hesitated when her oldest daughter became eligible to a receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the summer of 2021.
"We asked her to hold off for a short bit so that we could watch the safety signals coming out of the states," Cropper said, citing concerns around myocarditis, a rare vaccine side effect that causes the heart to become inflamed.
Her daughter was vaccinated by the next month. And by the time her younger daughters were eligible to be vaccinated in December, her concerns had all but evaporated. Her kids were first in line at the clinic, eager to get immunized so that they could safely visit their 101-year-old grandmother.
"There's some fear as a parent because our kids are our most precious things the world, but I have a lot of confidence in all of the data," she said.
Not all parents in B.C. who didn't get their children vaccinated right away have come to the same decision. B.C.'s vaccination rate in children aged five to 11 has stalled in recent weeks, with just 57 per cent of eligible kids in that age group having a first dose. The number is in stark contrast to vaccination uptake in the 12 to 17 age group which stands at 89 per cent, comparable to adult vaccination rates in the province.
B.C. has among the lowest child vaccination rates in Canada, second only to Alberta, where 48 per cent of children have received one dose.
Experts say it's hard to know why so many parents in B.C. are choosing not to vaccinate their children — but that lingering concerns about the safety of the vaccine and the lifting of public health restrictions have slowed the momentum behind the province's vaccination campaign.
The province said in a statement a "comprehensive, provincewide, paid information" campaign targeting parents is set to launch in mid-April, and that a similar plan was in place from November to March. It said parents are currently being encouraged to vaccinate their kids, through social media, reading materials printed in 15 different languages and by creating child-friendly vaccine environments.
Marie Tarrant, a professor at UBC's school of nursing, said that throughout the pandemic, B.C. health officials frequently assured parents children are unlikely to spread COVID-19 in schools — a message that could now be undermining the importance of getting children vaccinated.
"We've heard a lot of that messaging, that kids are safe in schools, and that there's not a lot of COVID in schools. I think some of that has likely inadvertently contributed to a misperception on parents behalf, and with the lack of messaging coming out of the government about the urgency to get them vaccinated, this has been reinforced."
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Tarrant said the current rate of child vaccination remains "woefully inadequate," especially as B.C. lifts the requirement for children to be masked in school. Public health officials have said ideally, every age group would be around 90 per cent vaccinated.
Dr. Manish Sadarangani with B.C. Children's Hospital's Vaccine Evaluation Center said despite months of vaccination efforts many parents remain more worried more about the side effects of the vaccine — though getting COVID-19 remains a greater risk, even to children.
"There are still some children who have a serious infection, and we can't always predict who that's going to be. Some children get rare complications that can last weeks or months. Ultimately, these vaccines are extremely safe for children," he said, adding that with rules easing, the urgency around vaccination has waned.
"The vaccines mandates, the public health restrictions have gradually eased away, so I think overall peoples anxiety levels are lower," he said.
Not every province is facing the same problem as B.C. — in Newfoundland and Labrador, where COVID-19 vaccines were administered in schools, 85 per cent of children aged five to 11 have received a dose of vaccine. In B.C., parents were asked to make individual bookings — a system Tarrant said may have been hindered as droves of people became sick with the Omicron variant in January.
The province said there is no shortage of pediatric vaccine, and appointments remain available at 478 pharmacies across the province.
"It is easy and convenient for parents to get their children vaccinated in a participating pharmacy in their community," it said in a statement.
Cropper says she empathizes with parents who are hesitant about the vaccine — but hopes the rates of vaccines increase to keep B.C. schools safe.