Sofia Hirani couldn't wait to tell her friends she was getting the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday.
The 11-year-old from Calgary was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — a cancerous brain tumour — at age five.
Years of intensive treatments followed that saved Sofia's life but left her with a brain injury and disabilities affecting her mobility, balance, speech and other senses.
Sofia's vulnerability to COVID-19 meant losing access to therapists, friends and extracurricular activities that were helping her recover.
"Even with her struggles, she was just starting to come out of her shell again, and you could see some of that old Sofia personality coming out," her mom, Shelly Bhayana, said. "And then COVID hit."
Bhayana and her husband are both physicians, and Sofia has two siblings. The whole family was extra vigilant all year, even isolating Sofia from her siblings at times if there had been a possible close contact.
"There's been times where I don't sleep at night because I'm so worried about it," Bhayana said.
Requirement for doctor's letter has been lifted
It came as a huge relief to the family when Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced Monday that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would be offered to young people born between 2006 and 2009 who have a health condition that elevates their risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19. On Thursday, Alberta Health also added family members of children with chronic conditions born in 2010 or later to the list.
To get a shot, those in the age group must show proof of identity and have a parent or guardian present or show a signed letter providing consent from their parent or guardian.
An initial requirement for a doctor's letter confirming eligibility was lifted Saturday morning, according to information posted on Twitter by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health. The change was the result of feedback from parents, family doctors and pediatricians, who agreed that parents and guardians could make the decision.
Health Canada is still reviewing use of the Pfizer vaccine for that age group, but Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said provinces can make the decision to broaden the use of a drug beyond the Health Canada licensed use, which he said is not uncommon in pediatric practice.
As well, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended in March that the vaccine could be used in 12- to 15-year-olds who were at a very high risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.
"Alberta is carefully weighing the evidence and believes the benefits to protecting this group of youth outweigh potential risks," McMillan said.
When Bhayana and her husband heard the news, they quickly consulted with Sofia's doctor and booked her an appointment.
Bhayana said they explained to Sofia that while it doesn't mean things will go back to normal right away, it is a step in the right direction.
"Once she gets her vaccine, I think we have just the ability to breathe just a little bit," she said.
Calls flooding doctors' offices
Early Tuesday, phone calls from parents keen to get a doctor's note allowing their children to get a vaccine began flooding into the office of Dr. Isabelle Chapados.
Chapados, an Edmonton pediatrician and pediatric endocrinologist, said she was "absolutely thrilled" by the announcement.
The risk of transmission in schools has meant many families have had to keep children with underlying conditions at home, and it's been hard on young people in many ways, Chapados said.
"The fact that they can be vaccinated, that means there's at least hope in coming back to school in a more normal way," she said.
Chapados said she believes the Pfizer shot is safe, adding that she doesn't have any concerns about giving it to children based on available evidence.
She said she was happy to see such high demand on Tuesday from parents eager to get a vaccine for their children. Parents who feel hesitant should connect with their child's doctor to ask questions and raise concerns, she said.