With the majority of B.C. children not vaccinated against COVID-19 and even fewer against influenza, how can vaccination help our health-care system survive respiratory illness season?
That question is weighing heavily on the mind of Dr. Lyne Filiatrault as she watches the news about B.C. hospitals being hard hit by respiratory illnesses — especially amongst children.
The New Westminster resident, a former emergency room physician from Vancouver General Hospital, is part of the Protect Our Province coalition. The group, which has been pushing for months for a stronger response to B.C.’s COVID-19 pandemic, renewed its call this week for the province to reinstate a universal mask mandate.
That mandate isn’t coming any time soon — a stance made clear by both Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry during a briefing on Nov. 16.
Henry said she doesn’t see a need for the “heavy hand” of a mask mandate with the other tools available to B.C. residents now — including vaccination.
“A year ago, we didn’t have vaccines for children; we now do,” Henry said.
The problem, Filiatrault noted, is that not enough children have actually received those vaccines.
“The numbers are abysmal for pediatric vaccination,” Filitrault said in an interview with the New Westminster Record on Nov. 17.
She lays blame for the low vaccination rates on the messaging from provincial health officials throughout the pandemic.
“They so much minimized COVID in children that parents have not vaccinated their kids,” Filiatrault said.
COVID-19 vaccination rates low among B.C. children
Just 51 per cent of B.C. children aged five to 11 have even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while only 40 per cent have two doses and a scant 14 per cent have their booster shot.
Among zero-to-four-year-olds — the last age group to be eligible for vaccination — those rates drop to just 13 per cent for one dose and six per cent for two doses.
Vaccination rates are considerably higher in some areas of the province, including Metro Vancouver. In the Vancouver Midtown area — one of the most highly vaccinated local health areas in B.C. — 75 per cent of five-to-11-year-olds have one dose, 66 per cent two doses and 32 per cent three doses.
In suburban areas of Fraser Health, rates drop somewhat but remain well above the B.C. average. Take New Westminster, where 62 per cent of five-to-11-year-olds have one dose, 53 per cent have two doses and 23 per cent three doses; Burnaby, where rates stand at 61, 50 and 20 per cent; and the Tri-Cities, at 58, 48 and 19 per cent.
On the flip side, however, there’s the Northern health region, where just 32 per cent of five-to-11-year-olds have even one dose of vaccine; and the Interior, where the one-dose number is just 40 per cent.
The picture is much worse for the under-fives.
Even in the highly vaccinated Vancouver Midtown, just 30 per cent of the zero-to-four age group has even one dose of vaccine, with 14 per cent having two doses. In New Westminster, it’s 20 per cent for one dose and 10 per cent for two; in Burnaby and the Tri-Cities, it’s just 16 per cent for one dose and seven per cent for two.
In the North, the numbers barely register at all, with just five per cent of the youngest children having one dose and two per cent having two. And it’s not much better in the Interior, at nine and three per cent.
Flu shots, anyone? Not for 90 per cent of B.C. children
All children over the age of six months are also eligible for influenza vaccination, but those rates are no better.
The Canadian Paediatric Society encourages influenza vaccination for all children and youth aged six months and older — but, so far, few B.C. families seem to be heeding that call.
Information presented in the Nov. 16 briefing included a slide showing a bar graph for flu vaccination in the various age groups across B.C. (see images above). It shows both the zero-to-four age group and the five-to-17 age group sitting at somewhere around the 10 per cent mark, or slightly above.
The Record reached out to the Ministry of Health on Thursday (Nov. 17) for more specific numbers and a breakdown by region, if possible. On Monday evening, Nov. 21, the Ministry of Health confirmed the details for the graph in question: the zero-to-four age group is at 10 per cent, and the five-to-17 age group is at 11 per cent.
No regional breakdown was provided.
Those low vaccination rates are particularly worrisome, Filiatrault noted, because B.C. surveillance data shows rates of influenza in children are just starting to rise.
“What it looks like we’ve been dealing with in children up till now was enterovirus and rhinovirus. What it’s showing in B.C. is that the curves are just trending up right now for RSV and influenza,” she said. “We’re just at the beginning, and the hospitals are not coping.”
Demand on B.C. emergency rooms puts health-care workers at risk of burnout
Filiatrault worries the enormous and rising demand for emergency room care will take a huge toll on the health-care professionals who work in places such as B.C. Children’s, Surrey Memorial and Victoria General hospitals.
“They’re being hit hard, and they’re being hit early. It’s been relentless. It hasn’t stopped,” she said.
She fears staff shortages will continue to worsen — as workers either get sick themselves when their children bring respiratory illness home, or when they suffer burnout and “moral injury” from being unable to offer the kind of care they were trained to give.
The way forward: Masking, vaccination key for B.C. health care
Filiatrault sees two main ways to cope with the current situation.
Filitrault wants to see a return to mandated masks — something she noted is supported by a majority of British Columbians. She pointed to a Nanos Research poll conducted for CTV News that found 72 per cent support for mandatory masking in B.C.
Any new mandate, she said, needs to happen soon.
“The longer we wait, the less effective it is,” she said. “If your hospitals are already overwhelmed, if so many children and families are already overwhelmed, … it’ll be too late, it won’t work.”
At the very least, she said, there needs to be a clear message about the value of masks and the necessity of using good ones, along with ensuring good masks are provided to those who need them.
“We need to educate about masking and better masks, and make masks available,” she said. “We’re at the stage where people still don’t understand it’s not about droplets; it’s the air we share and we breathe. Most indoor, crowded places right now are unsafe; that’s the bottom line. Wear the best masks possible.”
The second important piece of the solution: vaccination.
Filiatrault said the province needs to push hard to get more children vaccinated quickly.
“I think they need to make vaccine urgent for the younger kids right now, both COVID and influenza,” she said, noting it’s impossible to know which respiratory virus you may come in contact with. “We need to immunize against what we can, and that’s influenza and COVID-19.”
How to get flu shots, COVID vaccines for children in British Columbia
This year, both COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations are being provided through the provincial Get Vaccinated system.
To make an appointment for a child (or anyone else), you need to first ensure they're registered in the system; registered, eligible people will receive invitations by text or email to book their immunization appointments. You can have a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot administered at the same time, or separately.
NOTE: This story received a brief update Nov. 22 with confirmation of flu vaccination rates from the Ministry of Health.