TORONTO — Ontario youth aged 12 to 17 can move up their second COVID-19 vaccine doses next week as the province eyes the return to classrooms in September.
Youth can book appointments through the provincial booking system, pharmacies or local public health units starting Monday at 8 a.m.
The province announced the change Friday, saying it’s aiming to provide more protection against COVID-19 and allow for a safe return to school in the fall.
"We are on track to significantly increase the number of Ontarians who will be fully immunized this summer, helping to protect themselves and their community," Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement.
Vaccines have largely been booked four months apart in the province but people now have the option of rebooking for an earlier date as more supply becomes available.
Youth are only eligible for doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The province says 77 per cent of adults have received at least one dose and more than 42 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Among those aged 12 to 17, more than 56 per cent have at least one dose and more than six per cent are fully vaccinated
The province has yet to share its plan for returning to school in September, after a year of pandemic-related disruptions that saw classes move online repeatedly when cases surged.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the province wants to see students return to in-class learning full time in September, but details of that plan are expected to be released later this month.
Youth-focused clinics were held across the province throughout the month of June, an initiative that's been extended into next week.
A group representing Ontario doctors urged families this week to book their shots as soon as possible, noting that the vaccination rate among the 12 to 17 age group has been "lower than expected" so far.
"Parents or anyone with questions about vaccines should talk to their family doctor, pediatrician or public health unit, who all have a critical role to play in explaining the benefits of vaccines and administering them," the Ontario Medical Association said in a statement.
Dr. Adam Kassam, president of the association, said he was encouraged by the news of expanded access to a shortened interval between doses for youth.
COVID-19 infections have been dropping in the general population as the vaccine rollout picks up speed in Ontario. More businesses were permitted to reopen and larger gatherings were allowed last week under the province's reopening plan, which is tied to pandemic indicators and vaccination rates.
Kassam said the push to vaccinate youth will help the province avoid another spike in infections in September.
"This drive to aggressively vaccinate as many kids fully, over the course of the next coming months before school starts, is going to be a crucial component to success for averting a fourth wave and to really stamping out this pandemic once and for all," Kassam said in an interview Friday.
He said doctors involved in the vaccine rollout are looking at how to adjust communication strategies to target youth by looking at social networks like TikTok where more teens spend their time, and gearing discussions about vaccination to whole families rather than individuals.
Several health units were planning to hold youth-focused clinics over the weekend.
In Peel Region, all 1,000 appointment slots had been filled as of Friday for a clinic running Saturday to administer Pfizer-BioNTech shots to young people and their families.
The health unit covering Grey Bruce also held a youth-only clinic on Friday in Hanover, Ont., offering first doses to everyone aged 12 to 17. The region, which had relatively low infections throughout the pandemic, has recently seen a spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the more infectious Delta variant.
Waterloo Region, another hot spot for the variant, was also promoting its options for youth first doses this week.
Starting Thursday, vaccination clinics in the region started accepting walk-ins for first doses. A by-appointment drive-thru clinic in Kitchener, Ont., was set to start vaccinating on Saturday, offering Pfizer shots to youth in line.
The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit said youth who received their first shots at community clinics in June would be booked for their second sometime before the end of the month, with confirmations going out by next Friday.
Ontario reported 200 COVID-19 cases on Friday and 284 cases that weren't released on Thursday due to the Canada Day holiday.
Twenty-eight deaths were reported over the two days.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press