Alberta newcomers could lag behind without more access to pediatric COVID-19 shots, agencies warn

Groups that help newcomers in Calgary worry the same barriers that kept vaccination rates low in northeast Calgary earlier in the pandemic could hold back immunization rates among children between the ages of five and 11 now that they're eligible.

Vaccinations for kids 5 to 11 available at AHS clinics but not schools, outreach clinics

Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO at the Centre for Newcomers, says 254 organizations worked together on vaccination efforts in the northeast earlier in the pandemic. She's calling on the province to make pediatric doses more widely available. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Groups that help newcomers in Calgary worry the same barriers that kept vaccination rates low in northeast Calgary earlier in the pandemic could hold back immunization rates among children between the ages of five and 11 if the province doesn't move quickly to increase access. 

Pfizer's pediatric shots, approved by Health Canada last week, are primarily being offered at 120 Alberta Health Services' immunization clinics around the province. Appointments begin on Friday.

The only other places the vaccines will be offered to younger children is four pharmacies in communities with no nearby AHS clinics — Warburg, Clive, Legal and Alix — and at public health clinics and nursing stations on First Nation reserves.

"We're going to have all of the same issues that we had the first time around, which took us months to be able to get everybody vaccinated," said Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers and chair of the Calgary East Zone Newcomers Collaborative that worked successfully to boost immunization rates in northeast Calgary.

That work included a large community-based drop-in vaccination clinic in northeast Calgary with support in numerous languages.

Lee Yuen is calling for more widespread access to the vaccine for families with young children.

Dr. Annalee Coakley and Dr. Gabriel Fabreau worked to organize a large community-based drop-in vaccine clinic at the Village Square Leisure Centre earlier this year. (Annalee Coakley)

"Not every family has access to reliable internet. They don't have access to smart devices nor do they have access to reliable telephone. So those are barriers right away in terms of people booking," she said, noting many people do shift work, are unable to get to clinics during regular work hours, or have unpredictable or precarious employment.

"And, of course, there's language barriers.… There's transportation barriers. Not everyone  has reliable transportation to be able to get their family to get the vaccines."

According to Lee Yuen, the best place to start is with school-based vaccination programs for children five to 11 years old — an option that is not currently being considered in the province.

"That is unfortunately very problematic for vulnerable communities and for communities that had the same barriers to get vaccines the first time around," said Lee Yuen.

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping confirmed Tuesday there are no plans to vaccinate younger children in schools.

"We're not running them in schools at this point in time. We're rolling out the vaccines for younger kids at the 120 AHS clinics because that's the best way for the scale of the program," said Copping.

"We actually ran clinics for kids in junior high and high schools and that wasn't all that successful. Seven hundred of the 1,300 schools that were offered actually cancelled."

According to Copping, 4,000 doses for kids ages 12 and up were administered in 591 Alberta schools.

He said there is also concern that if uptake isn't high, school vaccination clinics could lead to vaccine waste.

Pediatric Pfizer vaccines arrived in Calgary on Tuesday. The shots will be distributed through 120 AHS immunization clinics, with appointments starting on Friday. Bookings began Wednesday. ( Leah Hennel/AHS)

At the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic, physician lead Dr. Annalee Coakley has also played a key role in the push to increase awareness and vaccine access in northeast Calgary, including organizing the large drop-in immunization clinic at the Village Square Leisure Centre in the summer.

"We've seen in the past with adult vaccination that these barriers play a significant role. And when you create low barrier community-based clinics, you're able to help overcome some of those barriers and achieve a very high uptake of vaccine," she said.

While she understands there may be logistical reasons Alberta is choosing to limit access to AHS clinics to start, she hopes the province will soon allow for more widespread distribution, including at family doctors' offices, pharmacies, schools, community drop-in clinics and the City of Calgary's mobile vaccine clinics.

Vulnerable communities will struggle at first, she said.

"Perhaps … we'll see them lag behind other communities initially."

Her team at the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic is already working to book appointments for families, helping with translation and arranging transportation to appointments.

"Our challenge is to be able to connect our patients to that vaccine. So we will be helping our patients book those appointments and helping them navigate to those appointments, so that might involve teaching them how to get there via public transit or might be providing taxi chits and arranging for transportation to those vaccination clinics."

The Alberta International Medical Graduates Association (AIMGA), which was also involved in earlier efforts to boost vaccination rates in northeast Calgary, continues to work behind the scenes.

Members, who are not yet licensed to work in Alberta, work to connect with community members and provide accessible information, including videos in 25 languages. They've provided support to the mass vaccination clinic over the summer and in the city's mobile clinics.

"We've learned having a community-based approach, meeting people in community [and] offering vaccine at times that are accessible to people in the community has worked," said Deidre Lake, executive director of AIMGA.

She, too, hopes the Alberta government will allow for more widespread distribution of the pediatric doses.

"We're heard from community members that we've talked to that it has been cumbersome or difficult for them to get an appointment through AHS," she said.

"So when we were able to offer those clinics in the community [and] meet people where they are at a time that is convenient for them — that's worked. And so we would hope to be able to do the same with children and be able to be on site and provide information in multiple languages where people can get their questions answered."


Jennifer Lee


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.