As Saskatchewan moves into Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccination plan on March 18, nearly all the talk, to date, has been about getting shots into the arms of adults, particularly the elderly first. But what about children – the students filling schools and kids in day cares?
Earlier that day, the New Democratic Party again raised concerns about schools, with Education Critic MLA Carla Beck calling for “the deployment of rapid testing, particularly in light of the variant outbreak in Regina that we've seen moved into other schools and other communities across the province.”
As currently there are no vaccines approved for children, vaccine approvals for children aren’t expected until the summer, at the earliest, and the school system has been used for vaccinations in the past, children may end up getting their shots in the next school year.
Asked what the province’s plans are for children, Minister of Health Paul Merriman said, “As far as I know, Moderna is approved to 16, and Pfizer to 18,” referring to the vaccines made by each of those companies.
Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said, “Right now, the allocations that we are receiving are for 18 and older and the vaccination program is primarily for 18 and older; two doses, hopefully by July, as supplies allow.”
He pointed out that clinical trials are working on the 12 to 18 age group, as well as in some cases they have started in the under-12 age group.
He said, “There is an assessment that want to have achieved population level immunity in adults, which we will hopefully do by July.”
As for children, Shahab said of the ongoing trials, “Likely the trials will show that they're as safe and effective in children as they are an adults.”
The vaccination program for those age groups will start once the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) makes the recommendation for those age groups and vaccines are available for those age cohorts, Shahab said.
He added, “No country in the world right now has approved vaccines for, as far as I know, in that under-16 age group, but obviously, both the approval of vaccines in that age group, as well as the further benefit of vaccinating that age group is important.”
He noted that school-aged children may get asymptomatic infection in many cases, but it can be an issue with those who have comorbidities.
Shahab said they will be watching as the trials progress, and NACI to make recommendations in the summer. “We don’t expect anything earlier than summer,” Shahab said.
When there are approvals, how will the province implement a vaccination program for children?
Shahab pointed to the previous experience with the H1N1 virus in 2009. That virus impacted younger people more than older people, the inverse of how COVID-19 operates. He said we had a vaccination program that was very successful in that case.
Whenever there is a vaccination targeted for school ages, he said, “We already have a strong infrastructure through school-based vaccination programs and public health clinics.”
He said there is the capacity to vaccinate all children fairly quickly, but other avenues, like pharmacies, can also assist.
“Certainly, the capacity would be easily there to vaccinate children 18 and under, once approved and the vaccine is there,” Shahab said.