Quebec sets sights on offering vaccine to teens, a move viewed as crucial in taming pandemic

After a long year of virtual classes, Anita Barbiero is eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine — and maybe, just maybe, see things return to normal.

“I think it just means finally feeling like you’re safe,” said the 17-year-old student at Collège d’Anjou, a high school in Montreal.

“It’s a sign that things might be over soon,” Barbiero said. “Obviously just the fact of being safer, not having to worry as much about having it and staying home.”

Teens were left out of Quebec’s commitment this week to make a vaccine available to every adult by mid-May.

But the provincial government is also aiming to vaccinate 12-to-17 year olds as early as this summer, once it has made doses available to all adults and ensured they are safe for younger people.

Teens may be eligible before next school year

Health Minister Christian Dubé told Radio-Canada on Friday that vaccinating teens would be a priority and that they could be eligible for a shot before the return of the school year.

He stressed, however, that it would be “mathematically impossible” to make vaccines available to teens by June 24 — the target date the province set for adults — given the limited number of vaccines expected to be available at that time.

Quebec is still waiting for approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Health Canada and the province’s own vaccination committee for 12-to-15 year olds.

Health Canada has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and over, but so far Quebec has only made the vaccine available in hospital or to those with underlying conditions. 

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director, has said his team is closely studying the data and looking at ways to get teens vaccinated as soon as possible.

On Thursday, he floated the idea of using school buildings as vaccination sites for students, even if the school year has already ended.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced plans to make vaccines available to adults in the general public by mid-May. After that, teens will be a priority. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A crucial part of the equation

Vaccinating older children is viewed by experts as a crucial part of curtailing the pandemic.

“Eventually for public health reasons, to get back to normal, we will have to get kids and teenagers into the equation,” said Valérie Lamarre, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital.

“They represent people that need to be in the community, that need to be in large groups, so we’ll need to get there, but I think we have to get there when it’s time and when it’s safe for them.”

Medical experts are seeing more COVID-19 infections among Canadian youth in the third wave, but say serious illness or death remains rare for children and teens.

Lamarre said that if the virus was more harmful to children, she would recommend they be urgently vaccinated. But as it stands, she said it would be prudent to wait for more data.

WATCH | Pfizer’s early data on vaccine for kids:

Pfizer-BioNTech says its vaccine is safe and showed 100 per cent efficacy in a clinical trial of 12- to 15-year-olds. Health officials say more data is needed, but parents are optimistic about the results. 2:03

Pfizer and BioNTech have said their COVID-19 vaccine is safe with “demonstrated 100-per-cent efficacy” in preventing the disease in those aged 12 to 15. But that data hasn’t been peer reviewed or scrutinized by regulators like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada.

Moderna is also conducting a clinical trial in Canada for children aged five to 11. The results are expected early in 2022. The company also launched a trial in those under age 12 in the U.S. in March. 

Johnson & Johnson, which recently won approval for its vaccine in adults in Canada and the U.S., expanded its Phase 2 trial for those aged 12 to 17 and plans to include younger children. AstraZeneca launched a similar trial in February

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, an infectious disease specialist who chairs the national advisory committee on immunizations, said Pfizer’s data on 12-to-15-year-olds is still being reviewed.

Like Lamarre, she said teens will need to be part of the vaccination campaign, especially given the presence of more transmissible variants.

“If we really want to curtail this pandemic and hope to get over this hump, we will need to include teenagers,” she said. “And you also have teenagers with underlying medical conditions who will benefit from the virus.”

Stress, and a sense of responsibility

Eden Andrews, 17, is anxious to get a vaccine and wants teens to be included in the campaign. (Submitted by Eden Andrews)

For years, Quebec has administered vaccines to children at schools, and Dr. Fatima Kakker, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital, said that may be the best place to do so this time around.

“We forget actually how nervous a lot of kids are. Even if they don’t say it out loud, a lot of the teenagers I have in my clinic, when you dig deeper, they are pretty scared of COVID,” she said.

“They’ve been hearing the news, they’ve been watching the media, so we don’t realize how much this is an extra stress on them.”

Eden Andrews, a 17-year-old high school student who works as a cashier on weekends, said she wants to get a shot — both for herself and those around her.

“It can become a real problem for spreading the disease, which sucks when we consider the fact that we can totally get the vaccine, we’re just becoming an oversight.” 

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