Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba children start getting COVID shots as rollout ramps up

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MONTREAL — There were stickers, therapy dogs, superheroes — and yes, a few tears — as Quebec and Saskatchewan children between the ages of five and 11 began receiving COVID-19 shots at mass vaccination clinics on Wednesday.

Manitoba announced Wednesday afternoon that it had also started vaccinations — a day ahead of schedule — due to shipments of the pediatric vaccine arriving earlier than expected.

The start of vaccinations for under-12s marks another chapter in Canada's immunization effort, as provinces race to get shots into as many arms as possible before the holiday season.

Cheers and clapping rang out at Montreal's Palais des congrès vaccination centre as nurses, some in costume, delivered the vaccine to their young patients. Children receive a smaller dose and a slightly different formula of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than adults.

While a little scattered crying could be heard at times, most children and parents were all smiles.

Henri Bergeron, 7, said he immediately said yes to the vaccine because there had already been "a lot of cases" at his school. "I wanted to avoid transmitting it and getting it," he said.

His father, Lucien Abbodanza-Bergeron, described vaccination as a duty in the effort against COVID-19. "To collectively try to put the brakes on this, we know it's the thing to do," he said.

A spokesman at the convention centre said staff had taken steps to make the experience a pleasant one for children, from streamlining the check-in process to plastering the walls with stickers and drawings. There were toys, games and the dog — a bichon frise named Bémol — to distract those who might be scared of needles.

Quebec Premier François Legault wrote on Twitter that as of Wednesday morning, some 115,300 appointments had already been booked for the five-to-11 age group, which is the most recent to be made eligible for the vaccine. There are 650,000 children in the age group in the province.

Legault said he hoped all eligible children who want a vaccine will get a first dose by Christmas. The campaign began in vaccination centres Wednesday but will expand to schools next week.

At a vaccine clinic in Regina, children hugged teddy bears and donned cartoon face masks, as relieved parents expressed hope that life could soon get back to normal.

Melissa Potter said she'd been keeping her seven-year-old daughter Charlee at home after too many COVID-19 scares in the classroom. The vaccination, she said, opened the door to resuming normal activities, as well as taking a trip to Alberta to visit family.

"She is the fifth child I have and the only one who hadn't been able to get (the vaccine)," Potter said. "This will boost our sense of security. She knows it's going to benefit her and everyone around her."

Some of the children, however, had different rewards in mind. Six-year-old Ryker, who came with his father Ryan Campbell, said he was most looking forward to a post-needle trip to a restaurant. Corbin Clearihue, 7, said the best part of the experience was meeting Spider-Man inside the vaccination centre.

Ontario administered its first pediatric vaccines to a handful of children at Toronto's SickKids hospital on Tuesday afternoon, and the government plans to begin the campaign in earnest on Thursday in child-friendly settings across the province.

Bookings for pediatric vaccines opened in Ontario on Tuesday, and the province said more than 93,000 appointments had been made through the provincial booking system by 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Alberta and British Columbia have announced plans to begin vaccinating children under 12 in the coming days. New Brunswick and P.E.I. plan to start Friday, and Newfoundland and Labrador says vaccinations at community clinics will begin as early as Saturday.

Manitoba got a jump start on Wednesday, moving up its previous plans by a day. Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead with the province’s vaccine implementation group, said Wednesday there are enough vaccines to provide a first dose to all 125,000 children in the five-to-11 age group. The shots will be administered at regional vaccine clinics, physician clinics, urban Indigenous clinics, pharmacies and pop-up community clinics and will be available in some schools in the coming days and weeks.

Health Canada approved for children a modified version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last week, and the agency says the vaccine is almost 91 per cent effective. Canada is expecting an accelerated delivery of 2.9 million child-sized doses, which is enough for every child aged five to 11.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends an interval of at least eight weeks between the first and second doses for a better immune response. Quebec has said it plans to follow that timeline, but Saskatchewan has said the second dose can be administered as early as 21 days after the first, depending on parental preference.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021.

— With files from Virginie Ann and Frédéric Lacroix-Couture in Montreal, Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto, Mickey Djuric in Regina and Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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