COVID-19 vaccination rates on P.E.I. are among the highest across the country — with 94 per cent of people over 12 now fully vaccinated.
But when it comes to those aged five to 11, that rate falls.
According to the province's vaccination data, as of May 22, 54 per cent of children aged five to 11 were fully vaccinated and 68 per cent had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
COVID-19 vaccines have been available for children in that age group since last November. Since then, the province has been operating vaccination clinics specifically for children aged five to 11 across the Island.
So why then does vaccine uptake within this age group seem to be lagging behind?
According to P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, COVID-19 infections may have something to do with it.
"We also had a large number fairly quickly of young people who had COVID in this province and so they're unable to be vaccinated," Morrison said.
She said once someone is infected with COVID-19 they have to wait three months after they recover to get immunized against the virus, including both first and second doses.
"So I think some of those who were waiting to be vaccinated got COVID and are now having to wait," she said.
P.E.I. still leading in vaccine uptake
While the vaccination rate for children between five and11 may seem low on P.E.I., the province is actually ahead of the national average.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about 42 per cent of children in this age group are fully vaccinated. In Ontario, that number is even lower at 40 per cent and in Alberta just 33 per cent.
Raywat Deonandan is a global health epidemiologist and assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Ottawa. He said vaccine uptake for children in this age group has fallen behind across the country and COVID-19 infections aren't the only reason behind that.
"This is not surprising," he said. "Largely because of this narrative that it's less serious in children. That's a questionable narrative and I think that attitude has done some damage in our COVID reaction and response."
He said while throughout the pandemic children have shown to be less likely to be symptomatic or hospitalized that does not mean they are immune to COVID-19.
Deonandan also said that with children not being in school soon and COVID-19 restrictions easing further, the sense of urgency around getting vaccinated may be dwindling for many people.
"I think the opposite should be the case, I think we should be vaccinating kids as much as we can now so that come the opening of the school year, when the seventh wave is upon us, as it likely will be, we have hardened immunity in our schools."
He said vaccination dramatically reduces the risk of hospitalization and death because of COVID-19 and it does slow transmission, even when it comes to the omicron variant.
If vaccination rates among school-aged children stay low by the start of the school year, he said September could bring repeated outbreaks in schools and high absenteeism among students, teachers and school staff.
Deonandan said when it comes to increasing vaccination rates among this group, officials need to be answering questions about the vaccine and identifying the people who haven't found the answers they need to feel comfortable getting one.
UPEI project aims to help
That's something a team of researchers at UPEI is now working to do.
They've embarked on a project to better understand Islanders' views on COVID-19 vaccines and the province's immunization program, specifically for younger children and booster vaccines.
"We're interested in determining what types of conversations Islanders are having, for example about booster shots going forward and how Islanders make that decision about vaccinating their young children," said lead researcher Kate Kelly.
It's part of the Island Vaccine Support Program, which aims to encourage vaccine confidence, uptake and access.
The group launched an online survey and is calling on anyone over the age of 18 on P.E.I. to participate. The survey will be open until June 24.
"There's a lot of things to consider when one chooses to become vaccinated or not. We're also interested in understanding maybe the gaps in information accessibility that Islanders face," Kelly said.
The project lead, William Montelpare, said the goal is to gather information about the attitudes and understanding around vaccination on P.E.I. and compare that to data collected in other provinces and countries.
"This gives some really good background information about the why of people being involved in immunization programs in general and specifically to COVID-19," he said.
"We want to increase the health literacy of individuals on the Island relative to many factors and in this case immunization programs and specifically COVID-19."
Immunization campaign in the works
Morrison said the province is in discussions with other provinces about the best ways to reach parents, schools and children and educate them about the importance of COVID-19 vaccines.
The province and Chief Public Health Office will be working on a campaign to encourage families to make sure children are up to date on COVID-19 vaccines before returning to school in the fall, she said.
"Of course I think we need to talk more about what we need to do to increase that rate, but we'll be doing that almost as we'll be going back to school and I think it will be really important as we talk about a campaign to go back to school that we have children protected," said Morrison.