Hundreds of Alberta schools have had their COVID-19 vaccination clinics cancelled — for eligible children 12 and up — due to low uptake as case numbers soar across the province.
According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), 303 of the planned 2,401 school-based COVID immunization clinics — or about 12.6 per cent — have been called off this month. It's mostly due to a low number of parental consent forms being turned in, but in some cases schools chose to opt out.
Regionally, 178 clinics have been called off in the south zone, 80 in Calgary and 55 throughout the rest of the province, including 23 in the north zone, 10 in the central zone, and 12 in Edmonton.
The clinics run until mid-October and are open to eligible students in Grades 7 to 12 who are born in 2009 or earlier.
The cancellations come at a time when case rates are growing among school-aged children. Alberta Health statistics show 5- to 19-year-olds accounted for 26.4 per cent of cases between Sept. 16 and Sept. 22.
"It's a concern," said Dr. Jim Kellner.
He's a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Alberta Children's Hospital, professor of pediatrics at the University of Calgary and a member of the federal COVID-19 immunity task force.
"We're seeing more cases in children related to our overall low vaccine uptake, our overall low vaccine uptake in that age group, and the consequences of having had no public health measures to help prevent transmission for many weeks."
New daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 Albertans, by age
Kellner noted the highest number of cancellations have occurred in southern Alberta — a part of the province that has pockets of very low immunization rates.
"It's possible what we are seeing is some of the patterns that previously existed. We know there are regions in the province that typically have lower vaccination rates than other parts of the province. That part is concerning, to see so few children having received the vaccine in the south and so many cancelled clinics in the south zone," he said.
"Not to call them out, particularly, but it sort of reflects what we already know with some regional issues with vaccine uptake in Alberta."
Data provided to CBC News by AHS shows just over 1,000 children have had their shots at school-based COVID-19 clinics since the start of the school year.
Edmonton zone: 453.
Calgary zone: 382.
North zone: 146.
Central zone: 47.
South zone: 3.
Information provided to parents at one Calgary school states that if at least 18 children aren't signed up, the clinic will be cancelled.
An AHS COVID-19 school immunization document indicates the threshold is 20 students. But the health authority says it is working to make immunization as accessible as possible for children and it has been able to accommodate schools with fewer than 20 children signed up.
Delta variant 'impacting younger people at higher rates'
At a news conference on Thursday, AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu warned the fourth wave is taking a greater toll on children. She called urgently for more parents to sign up their children.
"Sadly, we are definitely seeing an increase in cases in children between the ages of 10 and 19 years of age. And it's clear that the delta variant is much more virulent than previous variants of concern and that it is impacting younger people at higher rates."
Yiu said the temporary in-school clinics include after-school hours and are open to eligible students as well as teachers and staff.
"Parents, please complete the consent program for your students as quickly as possible because this simple step will protect them."
As of Thursday afternoon, 62.3 per cent of 12- to 14-year-olds and 64 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds were fully vaccinated.
Proportion of Albertans vaccinated against COVID-19, by age
The cancellations are sparking calls for AHS to make it easier for children to get their shots.
"That's a high number. So I'm a bit taken aback by the low uptake," said Wing Li, a member of the advocacy group Support our Students Alberta.
Li said AHS should consider removing its requirement that children have written parental consent to get their shots at school.
"Maybe that's something they need to look at. If you're seeing cancellations on this level, then you need to look at what's going wrong. The gaps need to get filled because as we see more students become eligible, is this going to be a continuing problem?"
Mature minor policy doesn't apply
An AHS spokesperson said the policy is in line with the consent process for routine school immunizations, in a statement to CBC News.
"All students who are under 18 require a signed consent form. AHS's mature minor policy will not be used for immunizations provided at school. However, mature minors can be immunized at AHS COVID-19 immunization clinics without formal parental/guardian consent. The assessment leading to this decision by the attending immunizer is done on a case-by-case basis."
According to AHS, if additional consent forms are received at schools where clinics have already been cancelled, it isn't too late to reschedule.
"For those schools who have had clinics cancelled, if additional consents from students are returned, we invite them to reach out to their AHS zone public health team (via their school nurse) before mid-October and we will make every effort to organize in-school clinics," the statement said.
AHS also said public health teams are working to assess the reasons for vaccine hesitancy and are working to provide "accurate, reliable and evidence-based information" to communities with low vaccination rates.