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Province promises school vaccine clinics, health unit can't do that yet

With mass-vaccine clinics in several communities in the region already booked well in advance, the area top doc said it will take time to switch to school-based clinics
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Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, speaking on a media briefing Jan. 5, 2022.

Though the Ontario Ministry of Health promised upcoming school-based COVID vaccine clinics, the local health unit is on the hook to run the clinics and they may not be able to. 

In fact, the region’s top doc said it would be a “challenge” to add more vaccine clinics to the health unit’s plate right now.

Following education minister, Stephen Lecce’s, announcement confirming a return to in-class learning on Jan. 17 in Ontario, a news release from the province also indicated parents would be getting permission forms to provide consent for their kids to be vaccinated at a school-based vaccine clinic.

Dr. Charles Gardner, chief medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said the provincial promise is new information to local health units.

“With all our resources deployed [at community clinics] and with them well booked up, it will be a challenge for us to be able to set up school-based clinics,” said Gardner during a media briefing on Jan. 12. “Our capacity has been all focused on large-scale community clinics.” 

The province didn’t give a timeline for school-based vaccine clinics, instead indicating parents could expect to receive the permission forms “in the coming days.” 

The clinics were one of several measures announced by the education minister today as part of Ontario’s plan to return to in-person learning. 

The other measures include access to rapid tests for staff and students to use if they develop symptoms of COVID and onsite daily confirmation of screening for staff and students. 

Nearly 50 per cent of kids between 5 and 11 years old have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Ontario.

The rates in Simcoe-Muskoka are about the same with 41.4 per cent of kids between 5 and 11 years old having one dose of COVID vaccine and 1.6 per cent with two doses. Gardner said there are about 7,000 kids in that age range booked into health unit vaccine clinics to receive a second dose. 

“I would like it to be higher,” said Gardner. “I think we need to have a better understanding of what else would be a concern with regards to the uptake of vaccinations for children.” 

The health unit does accept walk-ins from kids between five and 11 years old at their mass immunization clinics as supplies last. Appointments are available for anyone over four years old for any dose they are eligible for.

Though there may not be school vaccine clinics in the region “in short order,” Gardner is glad to see students getting back to the classroom. 

“I think it’s an important decision for our province to make for the overall well-being of our children … and also as support for families to be able to attend work,” said Gardner. “Although transmission can and has happened in schools, we see a higher degree of transmission, generally, in the community.” 

He reiterated the provincial change in school case reporting will mean the health unit is not following up on reported school cases or exclusion of cohorts associated with a case. Neither the health unit nor the school board will be reporting on cases associated with local schools.

For the most part, students and educators who experience symptoms of COVID-19 won’t get PCR tests under the current eligibility. Instead, they can use a rapid test to confirm they have COVID and they’ll have to isolate themselves for five days (if fully vaccinated, 10 days if not) or until symptoms start improving (whichever is longer). 

“We will continue to provide advice on an ongoing basis if needed,” said Gardner. “We do anticipate there will be challenges for all involved for this return to class.” 

He reminded families to be diligent about screening for symptoms and to stay away from school if unwell. 

“Multiple layers of protection continue to be in place to keep schools as safe as possible,” said Gardner. 

The health unit has resources posted to its website about safety measures for in-person learning.