Vaccination rates for Alberta kids ages 5-11 are the lowest in Canada, but experts see hope ahead
'I would definitely love to see the number be a lot higher than it is today,' expert says
Alberta is lagging behind all other Canadian provinces and territories when it comes to getting children aged five to 11 vaccinated against COVID-19, publicly available data shows.
Accessibility is a roadblock, and so is vaccine hesitancy among parents and guardians.
But some experts are confident steps can be taken to improve vaccination rates by making it easier for children to get the jab, while continuing to push the research and data proving the vaccine is safe for children.
Public health experts who spoke with CBC News believe that improving vaccine uptake among younger Albertans will be key to protecting them from the illness.
Alberta has been behind the rest of Canada since the reporting week of Dec. 25, federal data shows. The latest federal numbers, for the week of Jan. 15, show 39.81 per cent of Alberta children have received their first doses compared to 47.44 per cent of children in British Columbia — the province with the second-lowest rate.
Provincial data shows Alberta's vaccination rate for children aged five to 11 has since increased to 42.5 per cent as of Jan. 20.
"I would definitely love to see the number be a lot higher than it is today, but I am encouraged by the people that have come out and taken that opportunity to protect their kids," said Dr. Kristin Klein, lead medical officer of health for communicable diseases at Alberta Health Services (AHS).
Fewer than 1 in 3 kids vaccinated in much of Alberta
In November, Health Canada approved pediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages five to 11. Two doses are recommended, at least eight weeks apart.
CBC News analyzed publicly available COVID-19 child vaccination data from the 132 local geographic areas within the five zones of AHS.
The analysis shows uptake is generally higher in Calgary and Edmonton. The analysis also shows that vaccination rates are lower for young children in areas where vaccination rates are low for people aged 12 and up.
As of Jan. 20, only 23 of the 132 AHS local geographic areas had seen more than half of children aged five to 11 get their first doses of vaccine.
Most of those areas are within the Calgary and Edmonton health zones. The only other areas represented are Jasper, in the North zone, and Lethbridge-West, in the South zone.
Many areas in Alberta have had fewer than one in three children get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some of those places are in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. Others include Fort Macleod, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.
Patterns evident in vaccination rates across age groups
Data reveals a trend: areas with lower vaccination rates for older age groups also show lower uptake among children.
The High Level area in Alberta's far northwest has the lowest vaccination rate among people aged 12 and older. Fewer than half have rolled up their sleeves for their first shots.
About 10 per cent of children ages five to 11 in High Level have had first doses — the third-lowest rate in the province.
The County of Forty Mile, in the South zone, has the lowest uptake among children, with only 6.7 per cent getting their first shots. Just over half of people aged 12 and up in the area have had two doses, data shows.
Parents hesitant about kids getting the jab
Children need consent from their parents or guardians to receive the vaccine. Many parents have hesitated, mainly due to concerns about potential side effects their children may suffer, experts said.
"Parents are, understandably, quite legitimately more cautious about vaccinating their children than they are about vaccinating themselves," said Shannon MacDonald, a University of Alberta associate professor of nursing who focuses on pediatric immunization.
"It's so important for us to get the message out there that taking on this 'risk of vaccination' is actually reducing risk of disease," MacDonald said.
As of Jan. 15, more than 1.4 million doses of vaccine had been administered to young children throughout Canada.
Only 154 "adverse event reports" occurred in young children after getting the vaccine, 132 of which were deemed non-serious, as of Jan. 14, according to Health Canada.
Meanwhile, as the Omicron variant spreads, more pediatric patients are winding up in hospital — in Alberta and abroad.
The United States is still seeing record numbers of pediatric hospital admissions, according to data from the U.S. national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations declined in the week ending Jan. 15 but are still at record levels.
Newborn to four-year-old children — a demographic not yet eligible for vaccine — are particularly affected, data shows.
"The time is now … and we have to help parents understand there is this urgency," said Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Calgary.
The experts who spoke with CBC News believe real-world data will help parents choose to get their children vaccinated.
Making vaccination easier for parents
Access is the other factor driving low vaccination rates, experts said.
Parents have to book appointments for their children, then get them there. Most kids aged five to 11 must be vaccinated at an AHS clinic — though vaccines are also administered at four community pharmacies in Alberta and at clinics in First Nations communities.
"It's kind of an active step that parents have to take, to book in their children to come in for appointments, and take time out of what are busy and stressful lives for all parents," said Klein, of AHS.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, told reporters on Jan. 13 that health officials are looking for ways to make it easier on parents to get their children vaccinated.
Klein said AHS has already held clinics for working parents and made weekend appointments available, as well as allowing parents to book all of their children for the same appointment.
An Alberta Health spokesperson told CBC News via email that AHS will increase evening hours at clinics once children aged five to 11 become eligible for second doses, starting Jan. 21.
To have, or not to have, school clinics?
Constantinescu and MacDonald both suggested that holding school clinics for young children, similar to those offered to teenagers last spring, would take much of the burden off parents.
The Alberta government looked into that but decided it wasn't a good use of resources, Premier Jason Kenney told reporters on Jan. 13.
"There was negligible take-up when we set up school clinics," Kenney said. "But it sucked up a lot of Alberta Health Services resources to staff those clinics for almost no demand."
Klein said thousands of students were vaccinated through the clinics. But that still amounted to a low uptake overall, and a lot of staff hours, over a period of weeks.
On Friday, an Alberta Health spokesperson said more than 6,000 appointments are available for children aged five to 11 within the next week, thoughout the province.
Alberta has sufficient vaccine supply to immunize all Albertans aged five to 11, the spokesperson said.