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Pediatricians urge Alberta to reinstate masks for kids, boost COVID-19 vaccination rates

The Alberta government is facing a growing wave of calls to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to children as it peels away public health restrictions.

Provincial government lifted mask requirements for children this week

Sofia Flores Rojas, 9, is comforted by her mom Alejandra as she receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Calgary last November. (Leah Hennel/AHS)

As it peels away public health measures, the Alberta government is facing a growing wave of calls to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to children. Among those speaking up are pediatricians who say in a letter it's too early to lift restrictions.

The mask requirement for school kids was removed on Monday and, at the same time, children under 13 were exempted from the provincial mask mandate.

All this comes at a time when Alberta's COVID immunization rates among children are sputtering and lower than many other provinces.

According to Alberta Health data, 21.3 per cent of five- to 11-year-olds have two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 46.7 per cent have one dose.

Pediatricians write letter to government

"That's something we as pediatricians are concerned about," said Dr. Sam Wong, president of the Alberta Medical Association's section of pediatrics.

He co-wrote a letter on behalf of the group calling on the premier, health minister and education minister to keep COVID-19 measures in place, reinstate masking and address Alberta's low vaccination rates among kids.

"Although COVID is often milder in children, it is not harmless," the letter said, pointing to increased pediatric hospitalizations during the Omicron-driven wave, particularly among very young children, and the negative impacts of isolation, school closures and activity cancellations when spread isn't properly controlled.

"Your government's plans for removal of public health measures have come without the necessary commitment to investing in protecting our children and communities.… We need a strong and clear message from your government that acknowledges the evidence that COVID vaccines are safe and one of the best ways to protect our children backed by equally strong measures to improve accessibility to pediatric COVID vaccinations."

READ | The entire letter from the Alberta Medical Association's section of pediatrics calling for COVID-19 measures to be kept in place:


According to Wong, that could include offering pediatric COVID vaccines in school-based clinics, at family doctors' offices, in far more pharmacies, and in places accessible by public transit.

Doses for five- to 11-year-olds are currently offered at Alberta Health Services' clinics and by a limited number of pharmacists in communities without AHS clinics.

Wong is worried transmission rates, school absenteeism and hospitalizations will jump without masks in schools.

"I think that we could do a better job as a province to improve the vaccination rate for these kids in this age group by making it easier for parents to bring their kids in to get vaccinated," he said in an interview.

Dr. Sam Wong, president of pediatrics section of the Alberta Medical Association, wrote a letter on behalf of the group calling on the Kenney government to reverse its decision to lift public health restrictions, including masking rules for children, and to do more to boost vaccination rates for kids. (Submitted by Sam Wong)

Pediatric hospitalizations up during 5th wave

At Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, Dr. Cora Constantinescu is worried about kids under 12 as public health restrictions are lifted.

"We've had through this Omicron wave the largest number of hospitalizations in the shortest period of time for children," she said, noting the likelihood of children being infected is higher than at any other time during the pandemic.

"This is a really vulnerable group. And we're seeing a lot of infection in this age group. And we're seeing more hospitalizations than we have previously in the pandemic."

Constantinescu, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, agrees there is a need to expand access to the vaccine.

"We need to be able to have walk-in appointments for parents because when we don't have access, it becomes an equity problem," she said.

In addition to pharmacies and family physicians' offices, she wants to see it offered in other places where families tend to spend time, such as hockey rinks.

Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Alberta Children's Hospital, says much more can be done to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates among kids. That includes offering the shots at pharmacies, family doctors' offices and in places where families gather, such as hockey rinks. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Messaging from government has to change, too, she said.

"We need to stop minimizing what this has meant to kids and to parents and we need to recognize that our kids have paid a significant price over the last two years."

School advocates are equally concerned, saying the reduction in public health measures adds a sense of urgency to the situation.

"It's time to get creative. I think losing masking has really pushed that into more of an active need now to get more access to vaccinations," said Wing Li, spokesperson with Support our Students Alberta.

Li and her group have been calling for school-based COVID vaccine clinics for five- to 11-year-olds for months.

"I think there's a lot of barriers that have not been addressed," she said. "We continue to say they should be in schools — after hours, if that's necessary."

Wing Li is an Edmonton parent and communications director for the advocacy group, Support Our Students (SOS) Alberta. Her group is calling for school-based COVID-19 vaccination clinics for five- to 11-year-olds. (Submitted by Wing Li)

Health Minister Jason Copping said during Tuesday's news conference that they are watching the data for any trends as health measures are lifted in stages.

"I understand some of the concerns raised by parents. There's different degrees of comfort levels.… We are in a transition phase," he said.

Copping reiterated his government's message that school-based COVID vaccination clinics were not very successful for older kids when they were offered last year. But he acknowledged more needs to be done to boost immunization rates among kids.

"In government, we agree that vaccinations are the best way to protect all of us," he said.

 "We need to get that higher. So we're looking at other options in terms of doing that.… We'll take a look at the various different approaches over the coming weeks to be able to support vaccination because this is going to be with us for a long time." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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