Kids across Canada have started to receive their first shots of COVID-19 vaccine, and experts say this could be a big help in Canada’s pandemic fight.
“The difference is going to be huge. The impact is going to be huge,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.
Health Canada approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11 on Nov. 19, and the first pediatric doses arrived in Canada days later. Some provinces have already begun administering shots.
Children in this age group account for around eight per cent of the Canadian population, according to demographic data from Statistics Canada, though it varies province to province.
Currently, about 78 per cent of all Canadians have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Assuming that young children get vaccinated at the same rate as their peers aged 12-17 – 87 per cent of whom have at least one dose – vaccinating this age group would bring Canada’s overall vaccine rate to nearly 85 per cent.
“It’s a huge dent in the total number of people who don’t have protection,” said Caroline Colijn, a professor of mathematics and Canada 150 Research Chair at Simon Fraser University, who works with the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group.
Predicting exactly what impact that extra few percentage points of vaccine coverage will have is complicated, Colijn said. Epidemiologists have to take into account current caseloads, understand how children interact and how they transmit the disease to others, which has changed significantly over the course of the pandemic, she noted.
With the data they have, Colijn said, in B.C. it would steepen the current slight decline in cases. In other provinces, she thinks vaccinating children would cause a decline in case numbers or at least have them level off.
“Based on the modelling that we have, it will likely cause a decline in transmission,” she said.
Blocking transmission chains
Vaccinating kids doesn’t just protect them from potentially serious illness as a result of COVID-19, like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) and other complications, according to Colijn. It also helps stop them from transmitting the disease to others.
“We would see a substantial indirect effect that has knock-on benefits for older adults, for hospitalizations, for ICU, because all of that is driven ultimately by cases now,” she said.
“And if we get those infections down, then those are older individuals who maybe never got exposed, who might have been in some transmission chain that we block by vaccinating kids.”
Many infections in children are asymptomatic, Furness noted, and are only found by testing classrooms. But, he said, infected kids who don’t have symptoms can still pass on the virus to their friends and family.
“One infected family can infect an entire neighbourhood based on the mixing that happens in schools,” he said.
This is why Furness believes that vaccinating school-aged children could make such a big difference in Canada.
“Primary school kids and primary schools are the last big biome for COVID,” he said.
Children under 19 accounted for more than one-third of new cases reported during the second week of November, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“Schools are this great nexus or this great gathering that’s very difficult to manage, very difficult to control and act as a superhighway for infection transmission,” Furness said.
While he doesn’t expect to see too much of an effect from vaccinating children until around February, he thinks that if the campaign starts strong now, it’s possible Canada could avoid rising case numbers like Europe is currently experiencing.
“If you look at what’s happening in Europe right now, that’s our future,” he said. “If we don’t do vaccination, that’s our future.”