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Ontario to run school-based COVID-19 vaccine clinics as academic year begins

COVID-19 immunization clinics will run in Ontario schools and nearby locations as the academic year begins, the province announced Monday in a bid to reach unvaccinated youth who are set to gather in classrooms next month.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says boards required to host clinics

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce chats in the hallway prior to making an announcement at St. Robert Catholic High School in Toronto, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

COVID-19 immunization clinics will run in Ontario schools and nearby locations as the academic year begins, the province announced Monday in a bid to reach unvaccinated youth who are set to gather in classrooms next month.

The clinics are part of a "last mile" government vaccination strategy that aims to make it easy for students, as well as their families and school staff, to get their shots.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said local public health units and boards will be required to host the clinics.

"By making vaccines more accessible, and with a cautious reopening in September following the expert advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we will further bolster our fight against COVID-19 and variants," Lecce said in a statement.

Youth aged 12 to 17 have the lowest vaccination rate of eligible age cohorts in Ontario, with 69 per cent having received one dose and 55 per cent fully vaccinated. There are currently no COVID-19 vaccines approved in Canada for children under 12.

The school clinics are expected to run before the academic year begins and in the first few weeks of classes, but the government did not immediately say where any had been scheduled. The clinics can run before, during or after school hours, either on school property or off-site in partnership with the school board.

The province said maximizing vaccination coverage "will ensure schools remain open for in-person learning for the full school year."

Plan doesn't go far enough, NDP says

The opposition New Democrats said the plan for school clinics didn't go far enough, arguing that more must be done to overcome barriers to vaccination.

"Months ago we called on the Ford government to proactively reach out to families, and work with them to get every eligible student fully vaccinated ahead of September," education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement.

NDP MPP Marit Stiles, education critic, says: 'Months ago we called on the Ford government to proactively reach out to families, and work with them to get every eligible student fully vaccinated ahead of September.' (Government of Ontario)

Daily COVID-19 infections have been steadily rising in Ontario amid loosened public health rules around gatherings and other activities — 526 new cases were reported Monday. The majority of recent new cases have been in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals.

Prominent experts have declared a fourth wave of infections underway despite relatively high overall vaccine coverage — 73 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated and 81 per cent have at least one shot.

The province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates 91 per cent of cases are caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant, which is driving fresh waves of cases and hospitalizations around the world. The group also estimates cases are doubling every nine days.

Top doctor doesn't expect schools to close again

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, has said he expects cases to rise further in the fall when people spend more time indoors, particularly among young adults and youth who have the lowest immunization rates in the province.

Moore has also said he doesn't expect schools to close again but boards have been directed to plan for that possibility.

After repeated pandemic-related disruptions to in-class learning over the last year, the province will allow more extracurricular activities and relaxed rules in shared spaces when students return to classes next month. Masks must be worn indoors but vaccinations won't be required for students or staff.

On Monday, the province encouraged people to get their shots but maintained that COVID-19 vaccination "continues to be voluntary."

It said vaccines will only be provided at school clinics if informed consent is received from the recipient, "as long as they have the capability to make this decision."

"Health care providers, the school, and families must respect a young person's decision regarding vaccination," it said.

Call for vaccine mandate for education workers growing

Calls for a vaccine mandate for workers in frontline jobs like health-care and education have been growing in recent weeks.

Premier Doug Ford has so far rejected the idea, but the province's health minister indicated on Monday that the government would soon have more to say on the matter.

"This is something that we are taking a look at provincially and there is going to be further information coming forward to you on this issue very shortly," Christine Elliott said at a municipal leaders' conference, in response to a question about mandatory shots.

In a speech at the same conference earlier Monday, Ford touted his province's vaccination progress but acknowledged that the pandemic may pose continued challenges.

"We're not done with COVID yet. This is a virus that will exploit any opportunity, any weakness in the system to mutate and become even more lethal," he said. "COVID will be something we live with for a while longer, we must always stay prepared."

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