Kelly O’Dwyer-Manuel was working from home Thursday when she checked in with the Facebook group that has in recent weeks become a digital home for people like herself — parents of kids under five, desperate for a COVID vaccine.
That’s where she saw the update first — that the Moderna vaccine for kids aged six months to five years had been given the official green light by Health Canada.
It was the news they’d all been waiting for.
“It was nice to be able to even virtually celebrate with them and have that moment to take a breath,” O’Dwyer-Manuel said. “You feel so alone in so many ways with this pandemic, and no more so than being a parent of a kid who can’t be vaccinated while the world goes on.
“Even though I don’t know any of these people personally, I’ve never met them in my life, but I feel that they’re kind of kindred spirits.”
The news Thursday will set in motion what is likely to be the final leg of Canada’s age-based vaccination effort. Making shots available to an age group, consisting of almost two million children, that had previously gone unprotected will also play a role in slowing the spread of the virus more broadly, experts say.
The topic of vaccination has become increasingly polarized, and perhaps particularly among caretakers of young children, each of whom will have to make their own decision. For the many parents who feel like their smallest children were forgotten as other pandemic protective measures were dropped, the decision is a long-awaited relief.
Many parents will have questions.
“It’s common for parents to feel more concerned and protective of younger children than older children and teenagers, right?” said Devon Grayson, an assistant professor of population and public health at the University of British Columbia. “Babies are fragile in many ways.
“COVID is still a fairly new virus, and these are fairly new vaccines. And although they’ve been well-tested, it’s just harder to make a decision when you don’t have as much information. And I empathize with that a lot,” Grayson added.
Experts and Health Canada point to a study of roughly 4,000 children, which found that a two-shot regimen prompts an immune response about the same as seen in vaccinated young adults. While side effects including irritability, crying and loss appetite were common, no serious side effects have been reported so far.
Multiple provinces have signalled their readiness to distribute vaccines as soon as they’re available. In an email, a spokesperson for Ontario’s health minister called it “fantastic news for Ontario families.”
“Ontario expects to receive this new paediatric supply from the federal government by late next week and is ready to distribute the vaccines to sites across the province so we can begin to administer doses with the support of our local partners as soon as possible.”
The doses are one-quarter the size of Moderna’s adult dose, to be given at least four weeks apart.
In so doing Canada will follow in the footsteps of the United States, which last month became the first country to authorize vaccines for their youngest residents. At the time, President Joe Biden called the green light a “monumental step forward” in the fight against the virus.
A slightly subdued reception has raised questions about what to expect when shots begin shipping out across Canada. In comparison to previous rollouts, which were marked by long lineups of people eager to roll up their sleeves, this latest campaign has been more muted, the New York Times has reported.
A perception that kids are less at risk for COVID, and therefore less in need of vaccination, has dampened enthusiasm in some circles, but it’s a perception that experts have pushed back against.
“Little kids’ COVID is not as severe as it is in the elderly and immunocompromised populations,” says Dr. Stephen Freedman, a pediatric emergency medicine physician in Calgary who has led global studies on how the virus affects children.
“Having said that, there are severe cases,” he said, speaking in advance of the vaccine’s authorization. “More children under five years of age have died from COVID in Canada than kids five to 11, according to reports from the Public Health Agency of Canada.”
If anything, the roughly 300,000 American children who have been vaccinated in the last month with no serious incidents reported should be “very reassuring” for Canadians, Grayson says.
There is also the broader ways in which kids have felt the impact of the pandemic, says Alan Bernstein, president of the research organization CIFAR and member of the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine task force.
The pandemic has also taken a serious toll on the mental health of children, and the more people get vaccinated, the better chance of slowing the progression of the virus, he added. (While the vaccines have proven less effective at preventing transmission against newer strains such as Omicron, they remain good at keeping people out of hospital.)
“I can understand the parents’ dilemma and trying to balance those things,” he said, speaking in advance of the regulatory decision. “On balance, my own view would be if I had a child under five, I would get them vaccinated.”
For the parents who have been waiting for the vaccine for months, and who have watched pandemic health protections be dropped while their kids remained unprotected, those appointments can’t come soon enough.
Jill Gorman, who organized the Facebook group that O’Dwyer-Manuel uses for updates, says she expected to be joyous but is not — “our children were put at significant risk of COVID infection during this intervening wait,” she wrote in an email.
O’Dwyer-Manuel says she’s keenly aware of the things her two-year-old hasn’t experienced yet, and can’t wait to expand his social circle outside his home and daycare.
“For us, this authorization means that number one, we know that we can take him out into the world a little bit more and not have to hold our breath. We can exhale a little bit.”
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd