REGINA — Saskatchewan medical health officials have released preliminary details about the plan to vaccinate children aged 5 to 11 years old, which is awaiting the green light from Health Canada for the pediatric vaccine from Pfizer BioNTech.
Medical health officer Dr. Tania Diener, co-lead of the provincial immunization campaign, and vaccine chief Sheila Anderson from the emergency operations centre spoke about the plan on Tuesday.
“One of the goals of getting kids immunized is to make sure they can get back to their social circles, their extracurricular activities, to stay in school, because we know how disruptive it is for kids to not be able to [do that],” said Diener.
Children aged 5-11 years in Saskatchewan would receive a pediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which is currently being reviewed for approval.
The pediatric vaccine is formulated differently than the Pfizer doses given to adults and youth over 12 years old, said Diener.
It contains a smaller dosage and a different stabilizer that extends refrigerated shelf-life to ten days. It is still a two-dose vaccine, delivered 21 days apart just like other formulations.
Clinical trials of the pediatric vaccine conducted by Pfizer showed no safety concerns or unusual reactionary symptoms, and a resulting 90.7 per cent efficacy rate after a full immunization course.
Saskatchewan is expecting 112,000 doses of the pediatric vaccine to be delivered in mid-November, confirmed Diener, provided Health Canada issues approval. This will be the first provision of doses for the rollout.
Vaccination for this age group, like all others, will continue to be voluntary, said Diener, and parental consent will be required just like any other pediatric vaccination.
Currently, public health is not planning to introduce the pediatric vaccine in age sequencing, instead opening eligibility for the entire 5-11 age group at once.
Health Canada is expected to provide an answer sometime in November, said Diener, at which time the Saskatchewan Health Authority would be able to move forward with concrete plans for the rollout.
Plan will focus on child comfort, says officials
An estimated 190 clinics in 100 communities will have the capacity to deliver pediatric doses, said public health, building on already-operating clinics across the province.
This will include walk-in clinics and booked appointments, said Diener, as well as drive-throughs. Pharmacists will also be able to provide immunization to children over 5 years old as well.
New locations exclusive to the pediatric rollout will also be added, in public spaces like libraries and community centres.
Anderson said that the pediatric clinics will look similar to regular COVID-19 vaccine clinics from public health, but will likely offer more space and more time per vaccine appointment.
“The physical and psychological safety of both our children and our parents and families will be a really high priority as we roll out this program,” said Anderson.
Parents or guardians will be welcome to stay with their children while they get their shot, and clinics will also be set up to deliver a vaccine to both parents and children at the same time.
Delivery via a school immunization program is also under discussion, said Anderson, and would look different than the previous school program made available in June.
Anderson said that while details are still liquid, potential school-based clinics would ensure that parents or guardians could be present with their children, and could .
“They may be during school hours, if we can have parents that can come in, [or] possibly on PD days when some parents may be off and at home,” said Anderson.
Vaccination in youth a key point in COVID repsonse
Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, also available during the announcement, said that the province is anxious to see the last group of children vaccinated to complete protection in schools and families against COVID-19.
Reported as part of provincial modelling data last week, Shahab noted that nearly 70 per cent of transmission among children in the province is taking place either in the household or community setting.
Officials are hoping to see a high vaccination rate in the 5-11 age group, to help curb that transmission.
“Expectation is that there will be a great uptake for this latest vaccine for a preventable disease, because that’s what COVID is now, is a preventable illness,” said Shahab.
Diener said that the health authority is already anticipating anxieties from parents regarding the vaccine, and will be doing it's best to provide accurate information to help answer concerns and questions.
“I believe that parents just want the best for their kids, so if a parent is concerned about getting a vaccine [then] we will relate the correct information or send them to the appropriate sources they can trust,” said Diener.
She said that while public health recognizes there are anti-vaccine sentiments, she believes Saskatchewan can achieve a majority vaccination rate in youth.
She added that a high vaccination rate in youth is in the best interest of public health, for both the protection of children and those around them.
“For their own health, it is important to immunize kids,” said Diener. “And when you have unvaccinated individuals in a group setting, you basically have a reservoir for potential viruses that can keep spreading.”
“So it's really important for stopping transmission, not just among that group but also in the rest of the population, to get our kids immunized.”