B.C.’s push to get children immunized against COVID-19 is failing to gain momentum – and that leaves more than 530,000 B.C. kids at increased risk of illness and hospitalization.* (see statistical note at end)
As of Feb. 11, 54% of children aged five to 11 in B.C. had received their first dose of Pfizer pediatric vaccine. As of March 8, that number stood at just 56%, an increase of just two percentage points over nearly a month. Second doses have increased from 12% to 30% in the same time frame.
That leaves 70% of five-to-11-year-olds only partially vaccinated, and a full 44% completely unvaccinated.
At the same time, children in the zero-to-four age group are all unvaccinated because those under five aren’t yet eligible for vaccines at all.
So why does it matter?
We’re breaking down some of the latest B.C. data to help answer that question.
Can vaccinated children still catch COVID?
The latest data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, for the period from Feb. 5 to March 7, shows 1,174 cases of COVID in children from 0-11.
Of those, 671 were in the unvaccinated 0-4 age group and another 229 were unvaccinated children aged 5-11.
Another 254 cases were in 5-11 children with one dose of vaccine, while just 20 were in fully vaccinated children.
Case numbers in B.C. should be interpreted with caution, since the actual number of cases in children – or any age group – is impossible to know because of the severe restrictions on testing that have been in place in 2022. However, the data does show that, within the limited set of children eligible for testing, fully vaccinated children were unlikely to test positive for COVID-19.
The bottom-line question for many may be: Does it really matter if kids catch COVID anyway?
According to B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the answer is a decided “yes.”
“This is not an innocuous virus, and it can have very severe effects, particularly in people who do not have a strong ability to respond, who do not have a strong immune response, (who) don’t have the protection of vaccination,” she said in February.
Kids and COVID: Hospitalization, critical care data show importance of vaccination
Vaccination also plays a key role in keeping kids with COVID out of hospital – and out of intensive care units.
The latest BCCDC data (for Feb. 5 to March 4) shows 40 hospitalizations among children under age 12.
Of those, 33 were in the unvaccinated 0-4 group. Another three were unvaccinated 5-11-year-olds, while four had one dose of vaccine. None were fully vaccinated.
The picture for critical care admissions is similar.
Of the nine children 0-11 who ended up in critical care, six were in the unvaccinated 0-4 group and three were unvaccinated 5-11-year-olds. No children with one or two doses of vaccine ended up in critical care.
No deaths were reported in any age group, vaccinated or otherwise.
The BCCDC’s School Situation Report for February 2022 notes the key role of vaccination for children aged 5-11.
“Between December 15, 2021 and February 12, 2022, unvaccinated children were 1.8 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 compared to their vaccinated counterparts,” the report says.
The report says children under 12 years old are generally at lower risk of hospitalization than other age groups – but it also points out a change with the rise of Omicron.
“Rising case incidence among children and youth in B.C. due to the emergence of the Omicron variant led to an increase in hospitalizations and a slight increase in critical care admissions starting in January 2022; both hospital and critical care admissions have generally declined since the beginning of February,” it says.
Long COVID: What are the risks to children?
The wild card in the equation right now is “long COVID,” the name given to the long-term health problems that can develop from a case of COVID – even after a mild initial infection.
A wide range of physical and mental symptoms can fall under the umbrella of long COVID, including brain fog and cognitive issues, fatigue, hair loss, headaches, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, loss of or changes in taste and smell, and more.
How many people are affected by long COVID, and who, is now under study.
The World Health Organization says current research shows it affects 10% to 20% of people who have had COVID.
Here in B.C., Dr. Bonnie Henry warned in February that little is known about how long COVID could play out in children.
“We still don’t have a lot of insight into the long-term impacts on younger children from infection, even though it does, thankfully, seem to be relatively mild in younger kids,” she said.
“We still don’t have a good understanding of children and longer-term impacts of this virus and infections in children, so that’s an important thing we’re still trying to get information about. We’ll need to monitor this over the long haul.”
Henry said vaccination has been shown to protect against long COVID with previous variants, and that trend seems to be holding true with Omicron.
“The risk of having long-term symptoms that persist when you’re vaccinated is at least half,” she said.
COVID vaccine: What are the risks to children?
Henry has repeatedly stressed that the Pfizer pediatric vaccine has been shown to be safe.
B.C.’s data bears that out.
The BCCDC’s School Situation report for February shows that, as of Feb. 12, 238,302 first and second doses had been administered to the 5-11 age group since November 2021.
Out of that, 21 AEFI reports – that’s short for “adverse event following immunization” – were filed, for a rate of 9 per 100,000 doses.
Those reports chronicled 23 different events, with the most frequently reported as “other allergic events” – such as allergic rash, hives, pruritus (itching) and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Two adverse event reports were considered serious; those were admitted to hospital and have since been discharged.
B.C. data: Kids' vaccination rates vary widely from region to region
When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, there are very definitely “have” and “have not” areas of the province.
The “have” areas – that is, where children have been vaccinated against COVID – are concentrated in urban centres in the Lower Mainland and around Victoria.
The Vancouver Coastal Health region far and away leads the way for pediatric vaccination, with many areas having first-dose vaccination rates north of 70%. As of March 8, the Central Coast led the way with 86% first-dose vaccination and 55% second-dose vaccination in the 5-11 group.
That was followed by Vancouver Midtown (79% first dose/55% second dose), North Vancouver (78/54), Greater Victoria (76/50) and the Saanich Peninsula (75/49).
It's a mixed bag in Fraser Health, which includes the suburban Lower Mainland from Burnaby to Hope and surrounding territory. It has solid vaccination rates in many areas – with New Westminster (67/39) and Burnaby (67/36) leading the way. On the other end, however, there’s also Hope (33/12), Agassiz-Harrison (37/14) and Mission (36/17).
The two “have-not” areas – those with the lowest pediatric vaccination rates – are the Interior and Northern health regions.
In the Interior, vaccination rates are lowest in Arrow Lakes (21/7) and Kettle Valley (23/8) and highest in Trail (57/28) and Kimberley (58/29).
In the North, rates range from lows in Peace River North (19/8) and Peace River South (22/11) to highs in Haida Gwaii (56/23) and Terrace (49/25). Nisga’a has the highest first-dose rate, at 60%, but only 8% second-dose coverage.
Health Minister Adrian Dix has acknowledged the regional disparity in childhood vaccination.
But, at a provincial briefing in February, he said the high rates of vaccination for adults indicate there's a "strong understanding" of the need for vaccination in B.C. and added he expects to see the pediatric vaccination rates climb accordingly.
"We strongly believe that the evidence is so strong that it makes children safer, that it makes their families safer, that it will make everyone around them safer, that we're going to continue to see those numbers go up," he said. "We're continuing to grind those numbers up slowly, and I expect that we will continue to do so and that we'll succeed in it."
Here's how to get your child vaccinated in B.C.
In order to be vaccinated, five-to-11-year-olds must first be registered in B.C.'s Get Vaccinated system, after which time an invitation will be sent (by text or email) to book an appointment.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control's latest "COVID-19 health outcomes by vaccination status and age" shows the number of people in each age group, by vaccination category.
It says there are 221,936 children in the 0-4 age group (all unvaccinated), plus 161,375 unvaccinated children in the 5-11 age group.
There are another 149,721 children in the 5-11 group with one dose of vaccine.
All together, that means there are 533,032 children under 12 in B.C. who aren't fully vaccinated – including 371,657 who are completely unvaccinated.
Those numbers reflect the data up to and including March 7, 2022.