When Ashley Gobeil told her daughter Addysyn she would be vaccinated against COVID-19, the 12-year-old screamed with delight.
"She happened to be doing her remote learning school call at the time, but we were so excited that we shared the news with her anyways," Gobeil said Friday, the same day the Manitoba government lowered age eligibility to be immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to 12 years old.
Shortly after seeing the news on social media that the eligibility criteria had changed, Gobeil booked her daughter in for an appointment at the downtown Winnipeg RBC Convention Centre mass vaccination clinic.
"It really is moving to see children that really want that return to before-COVID times," Gobeil said. "They’ve gone through a lot with school, cancellation of sports and activities, and they just do so with such grace and eloquence."
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, announced the change in eligibility criteria Friday morning, lowering the age limit for vaccination with Pfizer to 12, from 18.
"We believe this will help us protect even more people, more families, more communities from the third wave of COVID-19," Reimer said.
Pfizer is currently the only vaccine approved for use by Health Canada in people under the age of 18. Health Canada approved the shot for children ages 12-15 on May 5; it has been approved for use in ages 16-plus since Dec. 9.
There are approximately 111,000 Manitobans aged 12 to 17, according to the provincial government.
On Friday, the government said it logged a single-day record number of vaccine appointments: by 4:30 p.m., more than 33,000 had been booked. The previous high mark was roughly 26,000, set Thursday.
For Gobeil, booking a vaccination appointment for her child was an easy decision. Vaccination is a topic discussed as a family, and in particular, how immunization can protect the individual, the community at large, and bring about an end to the pandemic, she said.
"(Addysyn) fully trusts the science behind it," Gobeil said, adding she and her husband have been vaccinated, and her 10-year-old daughter is also interested in being immunized.
"And they see it as something they need to do for their community to keep their grandparents safe, to keep their aunts and uncles safe, to keep people who are immunocompromised safe."
Manitoba is the second province to expand vaccination to youth. Earlier this week, Alberta dropped its immunization criteria to 12 years old.
In Manitoba, young people represent a significant area for the coronavirus to survive and spread, particularly in households, Reimer said.
"Children below 12 have a lower likelihood of being infected, demonstrating symptoms, and of transmitting to others. When we look at older children, their risk becomes more similar to young adults, and, certainly, we have seen that young adults are at the highest risk for transmission of the virus, with youth falling somewhere in between those two groups," she said.
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Manitoba's COVID-19 vaccine task force is asking people who do not self-identify as Indigenous to refrain from booking vaccine appointments at Indigenous-led immunization clinics in urban areas.
There are five such clinics in Manitoba, including two in Winnipeg's North End and South Point Douglas neighbourhoods, that accept a small number of walk-ins each day.
The clinics are also set up to offer vaccines in a culturally sensitive way and offer additional supports such as childminding and care packages for people who require them.
According to the province, the urban Indigenous clinics are designed to increase accessibility and provide culturally safe spaces for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
The latest data from the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Coordination Team shows First Nations people make up 22 per cent of active COVID-19 cases in Manitoba, 36 per cent of current hospital admissions due to the disease, and 42 per cent of patients currently in intensive care.
"When non-Indigenous people make appointments or use the walk-in spaces at those sites, it limits access for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples," the province's vaccine task force said Friday in a statement.
"At this time, officials ask that only people who self-identify as First Nations (status or non-status), Métis or Inuit, or people who share a household with someone who identifies as Indigenous attend these clinics. Non-Indigenous people are asked to make their appointments at supersites, community pop-up clinics, medical clinics and pharmacies."
Once youth and adults are fully vaccinated, it will also be less likely they have to isolate if exposed to COVID-19, she said.
"There's huge benefits for the youth as far as what we can do in our public health measures," Reimer added.
"Our goals are... to open up schools, to open up sports and other activities, music, dance. And so the sooner we have more Manitobans protected, including those who are 12 to 17, the sooner we'll be able to start opening up some of those activities."
As of Friday, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization had yet to release its recommendations for the use of the vaccine in people under 16.
The Pfizer vaccine has been tested, reviewed and found to be safe for youth, Reimer said.
"Young people have access to make their own health-care decisions. Mature minors (16 and 17) are young people who have capacity to fully appreciate the nature and the consequences of proposed health treatments, and are capable of giving informed consent for themselves," Reimer said.
It is best that youth between 12 and 15 attend their vaccination appointment with a parent, guardian or caregiver, or have their parent sign their consent form ahead of time to make the visit as easy as possible, she said.
If someone aged 12 to 15 goes to an immunization clinic without a guardian and without a signed consent form, they can go through an informed consent process with a clinical lead at the vaccination site to determine ability to consent on their own.
The Pfizer vaccine is offered at provincially run mass vaccination clinics and at urban Indigenous clinics throughout Manitoba.
As of Friday, 625,404 doses of vaccine had been administered in Manitoba; nearly 49.4 per cent of the adult population had received at least one shot.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.