As yet another wave of COVID-19 rips through Canada, Julie Lajoie finds herself worrying for her children’s health.
Lajoie, a Winnipeg, Man., mother to a four-year-old and 19-month-old, wonders how she will protect her kids from the highly transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant in a country that is loosening restrictions ahead of the summer season.
“We want to try to protect our kids as much as we can, but that vaccine is not there and there’s no kind of community-level protection that can help to protect them,” she told Global News.
“Parents feel isolated for sure.”
Canada’s sixth wave is playing out differently across the country, with some areas reporting possible peaks in transmission. However, it is clear the wave is not over yet.
How is the sixth wave impacting children?
When it comes to children, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), out of the 53,601 infections reported during the week of April 10 to 16, 3,008 were in kids under 12.
Adults between the ages of 30 and 49 led the country with the most reported infections during that week, coming in at 18,323.
However, due to testing limitations across the country, case counts likely underestimate the actual number of infections.
With this in mind, experts have turned to hospitalizations as a way to track COVID-19 activity in the community.
According to PHAC’s latest weekly update, 93 children under 12 were admitted to hospital between April 10 and 16. More than 1,000 Canadians 80 years or older were admitted to hospital in that same time frame, the data showed.
Children are less likely to suffer from severe COVID-19 illness, but it is possible and its effects can linger in some cases, according to a recent study.
When Omicron was dominant in the United States over the winter, COVID-19 hospitalizations for children five to 11 were twice as high among unvaccinated children compared with inoculated ones, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said recently.
Thirty per cent of hospitalized children had no underlying medical conditions, and 19 per cent were admitted to an intensive care unit. Children with diabetes and obesity were more likely to experience severe COVID-19, the CDC said.
At the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, about two-thirds of children coming into the hospital during the sixth wave have shown COVID-19 symptoms, said Tammy DeGiovanni, senior vice president and chief nurse executive.
Some of the more common COVID-19 symptoms include sore throat, runny nose and sneezing, the government says, and while the hospital is seeing COVID-19 admissions, they’re also admitting kids with COVID symptoms for other reasons like delayed surgeries and delayed appointments, DeGiovanni told Global News.
“We have admissions to the hospital with COVID, more in this last wave than we have earlier but then it’s much more prevalent in the community as well,” she said.
“But typically for kids, it’s not as serious as what we’ve seen. We’re not testing everybody, so it’s hard to know unless you’re admitted to the hospital. … It’s hard to know how prevalent it is in the kids that we’re seeing right now.”
Other children’s hospitals in Canada are experiencing differing situations.
In Hamilton, Ont., at McMaster Children’s Hospital, COVID-19 admissions are low but the hospital is seeing “significant volume” in general admissions, coupled with staff out from COVID-19, which is “placing significant pressure on hospital capacity,” a spokesperson said.
Alberta’s Children’s Hospital continues to treat patients with COVID-19 and respiratory issues, and its emergency department is seeing “high demand,” a spokesperson said; BC Children’s Hospital is experiencing a decline in COVID-19 admissions, an official told Global News.
At SickKids in Toronto, COVID-19 admissions between March 25 and April 25 were down compared to the fifth wave from Dec. 25 to Jan. 25, a spokesperson told Global News. More than 40 per cent of admissions are among children under five, who are ineligible for vaccination, they said.
What about vaccine uptake?
In Canada, 40 per cent of children aged five to 11 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest government inoculation data. Roughly 82 per cent of the entire population is vaccinated against COVID-19.
The first COVID-19 vaccine for that age group — Pfizer’s product — began rolling out in late November. Moderna’s vaccine for children six to 11 was approved in March.
Vaccination for children has lagged in comparison to adults, and since Omicron emerged late last year, experts have pushed for more resources to be poured into the campaign to boost those numbers.
Children under five remain ineligible for vaccination as no vaccine has been approved in Canada for that age group; no product has been submitted for review either, Health Canada told Global News on Monday.
However, vaccine makers say they are close to doing just that.
Patricia Gauthier, president and general manager of Moderna Canada, told Global News she hopes the company will submit its vaccine for kids between six months and under six years of age soon.
It plans to file for emergency use authorization in the United States by the end of the month, she said.
Late last month, Moderna said a low-dose of its COVID-19 vaccine works in babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
Pfizer, meanwhile, is in “ongoing discussions with Health Canada about the vaccine in this population,” but can’t comment on filing timelines in Canada, a spokesperson said.
Pfizer is also testing small doses for children under five, but had to add a third shot to its study when two didn’t prove strong enough.
“If those submissions happen sometime in May, we can expect that it’ll take maybe a month or two, if not more, to have that reviewed,” said Dr. Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“It’s safe to say that we don’t know when it will be approved, but that it should just take the appropriate amount of time, and sometimes you can’t know how much that is because you really want to pour through that data and make sure everything is perfect.”
Yet it is frustrating that a vaccine is not yet available for children under five, said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto.
“That’s disappointing that it might not be out for a couple of months, and kids continue to be in schools, continue to play together and they are a vector for transmission as well,” she said.
“I’ll be happy when the vaccine is out for the younger kids, especially kids that are in daycare and who are exposed to a lot of other kids.”
How can parents keep their children safe in the sixth wave?
Canadian children still have several weeks left in school before the summer break arrives.
While the warming weather comes with an opportunity to get outside where virus transmission is less likely, Canadians across the country spending time indoors in public will do so in an environment with less restrictions.
Children, particularly those who are not yet vaccinated or can’t get vaccinated, should have a “wall” of protection around them, Banerji said.
“If they’re older kids who are eligible to be vaccinated, make sure they’re vaccinated, make sure that everyone in the household is vaccinated,” she said.
Banerji added that parents should also have their children keep their masks handy, even as many provinces no longer require them in certain settings.
“There may be a lot of peer pressure for them not to wear masks anymore, that it may not be cool, but if we have this societal belief and that majority of parents are saying … masks not just protect you, but protect the people around you,” she said.
“Encourage the younger kids to wear the masks.”
DeGiovanni echoed Banerji’s advice.
“Masking, limiting contacts … really all of those things that we know work through COVID,” she said.
“That’s what the younger cohort is needing to do.”