Ontario health units taking different approaches to student immunization catch up

A registered nurse administers a vaccination to a young boy in Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 17, 2019. Some Ontario students are starting to receive suspension notices over out-of-date immunization records, but many health units are giving families more time to catch up. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Vernon

Thousands of students in Windsor, Ont., are starting to receive suspension notices over out-of-date immunization records, but health units elsewhere in the province are giving families more time to catch up on routine shots after two years of pandemic disruptions.

Students between the ages of four and 17 in the province could face suspension from school if they do not have certain vaccinations. But health units say immunizations — and public health records-keeping related to them — have lagged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as shots that aren’t required to attend school, but are made available to students during the school year.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said this week it has issued 7,858 suspension orders to students with incomplete immunization records, after reviewing secondary student records in June and sending out initial notices.

Read more: Thousands of Ontario students behind on vaccines usually administered in schools

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Students now have until Sept. 12 to update their records, or they could be suspended for up to 20 days starting Sept. 14, the health unit said.

The health unit — along with many others across the province — is running catch-up immunization clinics throughout the summer.

The North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit said parents and guardians have until the end of this year to get their children up to date on required vaccinations, and it plans to start sending out notices in early 2023 that include a date by which records must be submitted to avoid suspension.

Toronto Public Health is also running catch-up immunization clinics, but said in a statement to The Canadian Press that it is behind on assessing immunization records due to the pandemic and is currently in the process of reviewing them.

The last review planned for the 2019-2020 school year was stopped in March 2020, the health unit said, and that work “has not restarted due to the ongoing pandemic response.”

Read more: Waterloo Region student immunizations set to return but suspensions a ways off: Aoki

“This equates to more than two years of missed immunization assessment activities, translating into an overall decrease of students who are up-to-date with their vaccinations or a valid exemption from 85 per cent in 2018-2019 to the current 55 per cent,” the statement said.

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Peterborough Public Health said it believes that more students are behind on immunizations than usual due to COVID-19 disruptions, and it’s also running catch-up clinics.

Patti Fitzgerald, manager of the health unit’s Vaccine Preventable Diseases team, said in a statement that the health unit might revisit enforcement of immunization rules next year, but is not issuing suspension orders at this time.

The public health unit in Niagara Region said it has not been able to comprehensively review immunization records in recent years due to the pandemic and it is running catch-up clinics for students.

“We plan on resuming our record review process this next school year, and expect more children than usual will not have up-to-date records on file due to several factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” spokeswoman Courtney Westerhof said in an emailed statement.

Ottawa Public Health said it’s planning to send reminder letters this school year to parents and guardians of children whose immunization records are out of date.

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Nathalie Shane, program manager with the health unit, said “there has been limited capacity to enter and assess immunization records” during the pandemic and Ottawa Public Health expects to get a clearer picture of how many students are currently behind during the coming school year.

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“At this time, we estimate that the number of students behind on immunizations is higher than in previous years due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shane said in an emailed statement.

The health unit said it’s exploring options to help students catch up on shots.

The Immunization of School Pupils Act in Ontario requires that students get vaccinated against specific diseases including polio, measles, tetanus, mumps and diphtheria, to attend school, with some exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Some were advocating earlier this year for COVID-19 vaccinations to be added to that list of required shots, but Ontario’s chief medical officer ruled out that possibility for the time being.

Other vaccinations aren’t required to attend school, such as human papilloma virus, hepatitis B and meningococcal disease, but are typically offered to students in school-based clinics that have also fallen behind due to the pandemic. Health units said those vaccinations are also part of catch-up clinics currently being planned, or underway.

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