Pharmacists in Nova Scotia are gearing up to inoculate thousands of children aged five through 11 against COVID-19, once Health Canada gives the green light to Pfizer for its pediatric doses.
In addition to making sure they have the supplies and staff necessary, they’re also preparing to vaccinate a group that might need more patience while receiving their shots.
“We’ve been anticipating that there might take a little bit more time with each of the kids, so you’re seeing longer intervals and spacing for the vaccine (appointments),” said Diane Harpell, the chair of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia’s board.
“We’ve all been trained on how to vaccinate all populations in the pharmacy. So a lot of training when we did go through it — learning how to vaccinate and immunize kids and distract and all sorts of strategies to use — we’ll be thinking about those.”
Earlier this month, health officials said children under 12 now make up the largest number of new COVID-19 infections in Canada.
Infections in that age group have now surpassed those of all other age groups for the first time.
Health Canada continues to review data from Pfizer on its vaccine for children aged five to 11, and approval is expected soon. The pediatric doses will be one-third (10 micrograms) the size given to adults and youth aged 12 and older (30 mcg).
The United States has already approved it and has begun vaccinating that age group.
Vaccination for young kids likely in early December
Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, has said he expects pediatric shots will begin in early December.
There are 65,000 kids in that age group who will become eligible for vaccination.
“Although we will be rolling out booster doses, our first priority will be to get vaccine into the arms of those who are unvaccinated: children five to 11 and anyone else who has only one or no doses of vaccine,” he said during a media briefing on Nov. 5.
While some jurisdictions plan on rolling out vaccines for children at schools or special clinics, the province will be relying on pharmacies — in the beginning, at least.
“Different jurisdictions are taking different approaches and doing what works for them. We firmly believe that relying on pharmacies as our primary initial delivery mechanism is the right approach in Nova Scotia,” Strang said.
“Pharmacies have been a foundation of our overall vaccine program, and if not for them, we would not be in the position we are today (with) vaccination rates.”
Strang said if health officials notice that uptake is low in a certain area, for example, the province might use mobile vaccination clinics or work with schools in those communities.
“I’m very grateful to see that he thinks pharmacy is the go-to place to get (COVID vaccinations) started for kids,” Harpell said of Strang’s comments at the briefing.
“We think about how close pharmacies are to all neighborhoods in Nova Scotia, 300-plus pharmacies and we’re everywhere. So he’s very clear that that’s the first step, that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Pharmacies ready to go
Harpell, who also owns Medicine Shoppe, a pharmacy in Dartmouth, said pharmacists across the province are ready to go once Health Canada gives the go-ahead.
“We are already making sure that we move towards having the supplies on hand. So having a few extra of those shorter needles on hand if we need it,” she explained.
In terms of staffing, she admitted that pharmacists are particularly taxed now due to COVID-19 vaccinations and annual flu shots.
“Folks are tired, but fortunately, we do have options. We’ve got students that we’ve been working with. We’ve had retired pharmacists come back. We have other health-care practitioners that have dispensed or are providing vaccine in our pharmacies as well,” she said.
“Folks just (need) remember to be kind and to be patient because we’re working through a lot of things at once.”
Tips for parents and caregivers
Vaccination and needles can be daunting for people of any age, but young children could find the experience particularly nerve-racking.
“From our perspective, the way that we approach it is patient by patient, client by client, that comes in,” said Harpell.
“I have two young kids, so every year they get their flu shot, they will be getting their COVID vaccine. And I think about what I do with my kids, and it’s really being honest and knowing that it’s going to be quick and knowing that they are in good hands.”
The key, Harpell said, is the art of distraction.
At her pharmacy, for example, staff have already been discussing ways to make the experience fun for kids coming in.
“We might have some fun toys around or something like that. We’re thinking about that,” she said.
“I had one staff member — because we are going into the holiday season — talking about maybe doing an Elf on the Shelf or a game or something like that.”
She said parents will often bring their phones or a tablet to put on a show for their kids to watch.
“If a parent comes in and they know their kids are nervous, we will work with the parent and kind of get an idea,” she said.
“But ultimately, sometimes it’s just trying to make sure we get this done quick. Get it over with. So there’s not a lot of time spent going back and forth on the kids being dramatic and being scared and stuff — trying to just get it done quickly.”
She stressed, however, that if parents and caregivers have any questions — whether it be about the vaccine or the vaccination process — they should ask pharmacists or other health professionals.
“We’re looking at the evidence all the time and if you have a question, reach out to us before you make your appointment or once you come in.”