TORONTO — Ontario youth aged 12 to 17 were able to start booking accelerated second doses of their COVID-19 vaccines Monday as the government worked to boost immunization rates before school resumes in September.
Appointments opened at 8 a.m. through the provincial booking portal, public health units and pharmacies. Tweens and teens in that age group are eligible for Pfizer-BioNTech shots, the only vaccine approved for use in youth in Canada.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said high vaccination coverage among youth will allow schools to offer in-person learning this fall and will help extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities and other in-person experiences resume.
"I'm encouraging families out there to sign their child up," he said Monday. "By doing so, our schools will be safer and it will allow us to create a much more normal experience I think many of our young people long for."
Roanne Wetherup of Ottawa set an alarm on Monday during her family camping trip to ensure she could try booking a faster second dose for her 12-year-old daughter Marisol, who received her first shot in June and had been scheduled for another in September.
Appointments at youth clinics weren't immediately appearing on the online portal when she tried to book just after 8 a.m., but Wetherup said she had better luck through the provincial call centre. After a short wait on the phone, she said she was able to snag an appointment for her daughter for next week.
"She'll be fully vaccinated before school starts and I couldn't be happier," Wetherup said in an interview. She said her daughter was looking forward to being able to resume her competitive gymnastics and return to school in-person.
More than 58 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 had one dose of a vaccine as of Monday and more than nine per cent were fully vaccinated.
The government has promised to offer full vaccination to all eligible students and educators before classes resume. Pfizer vaccines have been set aside for youth, and youth-focused first dose clinics have been extended this week.
Lecce has said the government will share its back-to-school plan later this month after developing it with the chief medical of health and looking at factors like vaccination rates among staff and students.
Ontario's opposition parties have said the government needs to improve ventilation and mandate smaller class sizes as it prepares its back-to-school plan.
The Progressive Conservative government has committed to spending $1.6 billion on boosting health and safety measures in schools, and more than $85 million to support learning recovery, but details are still outstanding about what September will look like in Ontario classrooms.
Classes were disrupted multiple times over the last year as the province moved learning online to contend with surges in COVID-19 infections.
Lecce said high vaccination rates among the broader community will allow the province to reopen schools in September for full in-class learning, including for students under 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination.
As of Monday, 78 per cent of adults in Ontario had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 46 per cent were fully vaccinated.
"This gives us an incredible sense of confidence that the communities that our schools are surrounded in will be safer," Lecce said.
"With low cases in the community, we know absolutely, we're going to be able to return kids back to class."
The move to accelerate second vaccine doses for youth comes as the province further ramps up its vaccination campaign.
Ontario initially booked people in for a second shot four months after their initial dose.
The second-dose schedule has been moved up over the last several weeks in light of greater incoming vaccine supply. Eligibility has been expanding based on location and the date when residents got their first shots.
Youth in hot spots for the more infectious Delta variant became eligible to move up their second doses late last month, and the option was offered to young people across the province on Monday.
That means as of Monday, everyone eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in the province had the option of booking accelerated second doses, but the onus is still on individuals to seek out and book new appointments themselves.
Lecce said the government is looking at additional "tactics" to boost participation in the province's vaccine drive in the coming weeks.
"We're having discussions about ways by which we can bolster the percentage and incentivize participation," he said, adding that public health units, school systems, health-care providers and other partners are helping to promote vaccination as safe.
Ontario reported 170 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and one death from the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press