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Focus shifts to public health units as Health Canada approves kids' vaccination


TORONTO — Public health units encouraged some of Ontario's youngest residents to channel their inner superheroes Friday as they prepared to vaccinate kids against COVID-19 after Pfizer's vaccine was approved for children five to 11.

Health Canada’s green light shifted the onus for vaccinating kids to local public health units, with many saying they were prepared but awaiting direction from the province and supply from Ottawa.

The superhero theme — employed by the Toronto, Halton and Chatham-Kent public health units, among others — is one "child-friendly" way public health units are trying to get kids invested in vaccination. 

"Show that you're a super kid by dressing like a superhero for your vaccine appointment!" a comic strip posted by Chatham-Kent Public Health reads, noting that the would-be caped crusaders will need to keep their upper arms accessible and the masks to the bottom half of their faces.

Other public health units are also working to add elements geared toward kids to their efforts. 

The public health unit in the Kingston area will hand out puzzles and let kids bring a stuffed animal to the appointment, while Ottawa will post child-friendly signs and hand out stickers at vaccination sites. 

"It starts before they come to the clinic," said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, ahead of Friday's announcement.

"Children five to 11 can differ in their ability to be part of the conversation, but usually they should be informed and have a chance to have their questions answered before they show up at the clinic."

Halton Public Health's superhero-themed question-and-answer page and activity sheets — including a maze where the exit is marked with a vaccination clinic — aim to do just that.

While the public health units are focused in part on engaging kids, they also have to make sure appointments are readily available and parents are on board.

Children are not to be vaccinated without parental consent.

Public health units are setting up vaccine clinics in schools, and expanding existing mass vaccination sites. Pharmacies and family doctors' offices will also offer the shots. 

Toronto Public Health, for example, said hundreds of schools in the province's most populous city will host clinics, but vaccines won't be given out during class time. 

Unlike in some other provinces, such as British Columbia, Ontario parents haven't been able to pre-register their kids for their shots. Instead, Health Minister Christine Elliott said they could book their kids for shots on the provincial portal starting early next week.

Public health units are also setting up education sessions for parents so they can get reliable information about vaccine safety. 

But some parents don't have to be convinced. 

Toronto mom Lisa Dorning said she’d been "obsessively" checking the news to hear when her 11-year-old son could get vaccinated, so Friday felt like a huge relief. 

"This will provide us with that additional comfort that as our son Jack continues to go to school and participates in extracurricular activities, that he's safe," Dorning said in a phone interview. It'll also help them all breathe a little easier when he spends time with his 93-year-old grandfather, she said.

Dorning said her son isn't a fan of needles, but "absolutely understands" the importance of protecting himself, his family and his community from COVID-19.

Experts have long anticipated the vaccine's approval for use in young kids, saying it represents a milestone in the fight against COVID-19.

Once that age group starts getting their shots, the percentage of the population that's susceptible to the virus will shrink. 

Paris Semansky, who has a daughter that’s turning five in January, said she's feeling that acutely.

"It finally feels like we'll get we're going to be able to get to the other side of this," said Semansky, who does communications work for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and supports the hospital’s vaccine clinic. 

She's resisted signing her daughter up for extracurricular activities such as skating lessons until now, but she said she'll be more comfortable doing that once her daughter has her shots. 

Semansky also noted that getting her older child vaccinated will help keep her 20-month-old daughter safe from the virus.

"It'll take away some of that worry," she said.

COVID-19 cases have been surging in Ontario, especially in younger age groups.

The province reported 793 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, 194 of whom were under the age of 12. 

The province also recorded four more deaths linked to the virus Friday.

Elliott said 470 of the new infections were in people who are not fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.

Provincial data show almost 89 per cent of Ontarians 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 86 per cent have two.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.

—with files from Noushin Ziafati. 

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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