An imminent return to in-class learning has prompted some Manitoba parents to book early COVID-19 follow-up shots for their young children, but public health officials say it is worth the wait.
Both Canada and Manitoba, per the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the Manitoba Pediatric Vaccine Advisory Committee, initially recommended an eight-week interval or 56 days between first and second shots for youth aged five to 11, the latest population to became eligible for a jab. The above recently reaffirmed their support for that timeframe, following reviews of the guidance and consideration of Omicron.
With that in mind, and Nov. 24 being the first day child-sized doses were administered in Manitoba, second doses will start to ramp up later this month.
It is not lost on Jennifer Wilder, a mother who works in an elementary school, that upwards of 200,000 K-12 students will be back doing face-to-face learning full-time by then. Wilder said she has come to terms with the fact that she and her children, in grades 2 and 5, will likely contract the virus, given how infectious and widespread the new variant is and how many contacts her family will have in the coming weeks.
"I don’t think there’s any right answer right now. Sending them back to school is scary, but at the same time, I know they need it. I just couldn’t live with myself knowing that I didn’t do everything I could (to keep them safe)," she said.
The mother of two consulted a family doctor before making a number of requests to pharmacies in Winnipeg to find a site that would allow her children — one of whom has asthma and both of whom have dwarfism, which potentially puts them at greater risk of severe outcomes should they contract SARS-CoV-2 — to get subsequent shots before they return to school on Jan. 17.
(Immunocompromised students should wait eight weeks between shots, per officials, who recommend families consult physicians before adjusting a timeline.)
Last week, Wilder provided informed consent so her children could get their second doses after a six-week interval at the Safeway Crestview pharmacy on Portage Avenue.
Some parents have been turned away from clinics or had their children’s follow-up appointments cancelled because it has not been two months since an initial dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s child-sized vaccine was administered in the province.
Vaccination sites will continue to enforce that interval, although it is possible to shorten the duration to a minimum of three weeks or 21 days, in some circumstances.
During a Wednesday news conference, Dr. Joss Reimer addressed the countless messages she has been receiving from parents on the subject and why officials are standing by the existing recommendation, the result of weighing concerns about Omicron against the known benefit of waiting two months between jabs, while taking into account the fact children are at a much lower risk of severe outcomes compared to adults.
"Children had a robust immune response in the original (clinical) trials and so we expect that even if the first dose may not provide the full benefit of two doses, it’s still very helpful," said the medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine taskforce.
Reimer noted that protection is greatest approximately two weeks and two months after receiving a dose, which is the current timeline for many students.
She also unveiled provincial data to show a Manitoban who has received one dose, at any point in the pandemic, is three times less likely to end up in an intensive care unit compared to someone who is unvaccinated.
"We don’t know when, if or what kind of variant might circulate in our communities in the future, so while there’s no question that we want children protected against Omicron, we are also trying to think about how to give them the best possible protection in the months to come because we know that COVID is here to stay," added Reimer.
Just over half of children aged five to 11 have received an initial jab in Manitoba. Two per cent of that group has received a second dose.
The latter statistic includes Ian Walker’s children, who recently secured second doses at the Sobeys pharmacy on Henderson Highway, 40 days post-initial shot.
"With the prevalence of COVID, we figured it was probably our best bet to do that," said Walker, who will be in contact with 55 students daily when his Winnipeg students come back to class next week. "It was the best choice for our family."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.