Manitoba parents in areas with lower vaccine uptake apprehensive about start of school year

Some Manitoba parents in regions with lower vaccination rates are concerned about the return to school amid a looming fourth wave and the highly contagious delta variant.

Janelle Chawrun, a mother of two, lives in Morden, Man., where vaccine uptake is sitting at 67.5 per cent. Both of her daughters, age four and nine, are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

“I’m feeling a little concerned just seeing the numbers of COVID cases rising in other provinces around us … knowing my kids are unvaccinated and all of their classmates will also be because they’re under the vaccination age.”

So far, 82 per cent of eligible Manitobans — people age 12 and older — have received their first dose of COVID-19 and 76.7 per cent of people are fully vaccinated. Rates vary by health district and community.

Manitoba’s Southern Health Region has recorded the lowest uptake to date, with 62.5 per cent of eligible individuals immunized, according to the province’s online vaccine dashboard.

Chawrun notes Morden, where she lives, is just a few kilometres from Winkler, which has a vaccination rate of 39 per cent and is surrounded by the R.M. of Stanley, which has Manitoba’s lowest vaccine rate at 22.5 per cent.

“We interact with people from the other communities a lot,” she said. “It’s really close and it’s low and somewhat concerning.”

Mike Powell and his family live in Grunthal, in the R.M. of Hanover, where 46 per cent of eligible people are vaccinated. 

“It’s a major concern for us,” he said, adding he and his wife are immunized but his children, who are starting Grade 2 and Grade 6, are too young.

“There is a markedly higher vaccination rate in St. Pierre, where our kids go to school … but our surrounding region, where we live and where I work, the majority are unvaccinated and that is alarming.”

Powell said it’s been a stressful summer as the province reopened, but he is feeling more confident sending his children back following the recent return of the mask mandate in indoor public settings and a new requirement for provincial employees, including teachers, to be fully vaccinated or be tested weekly.

“I really hope that it’s not too little too late, but right now anything is better than nothing,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if things shut down and went to remote learning again based on the modelling that’s been released.”

In Steinbach, Jennifer Perrin, a mother of two, is grappling with sending her daughter to start Grade 2.

Perrin said she knows her daughter is better off at school, learning in-person with her friends, but she is concerned about the fourth wave and disappointed in Steinbach’s 61 per cent vaccination rate.  

“I’m really on the fence,” she said. “For me, safety comes first … and I likely will be keeping her home until something changes.”

Perrin said she would like her daughter to be able to be vaccinated before she sends her back. 

Delta not more severe in kids: specialist

Dr. Jacqueline Wong, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., says she’s hearing similar comments from parents in Ontario.

While data on the more transmissible delta variant continues to evolve, information out of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom offers some reassurance, she says.

“There isn’t anything to suggest that delta variant is more severe in kids … compared to other variants,” Wong said.

She said severity takes into account the total number of cases that end up in hospital and intensive care and the proportion of cases in a community.

“Because this virus is more transmissible, and certainly in the States, in certain pockets of that country where there’s a lot of community transmission you will expect an increased number of cases in children, so that denominator is going to go up,” she said, adding as a result, the number of hospitalizations and ICU admissions will rise.

Wong says recent hospitalization data out of the U.K. shows young people under the age of 25 are not showing increased risk of severe illness to date.

“When you look at the rate as they’re coming out of the delta wave now and compare it to their earlier alpha wave, the hospitalization rates in younger children are no different,” she said.

When it comes to schools, Wong says previous waves of COVID-19 in Canada and around the world have shown they are not a primary driver of transmission. She acknowledges spread does happen at school, and the risk cannot be eliminated, but it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the community.

“When parents are thinking about, or trying to put their concerns in the context of this pandemic, even though vaccination rates in their particular municipality might not be as high as somewhere else, they have to think about are there a lot of cases at that time?” Wong said. 

“And also try to recognize that the severity of the cases is still [low] — we’re in a much better position now than we were at other points.”

Layers to lower risk

She said community vaccination rates are just one of the many layers or strategies to lower the risk of spread in schools.

Wong points to hand hygiene, mask use, making use of alternative classroom spaces such as gyms and the outdoors and ensuring there is paid sick leave for school staff and other members of the public who need to stay home when they’re sick as other key protective measures.

“I still think giving strong consideration to having your children in school, for the vast majority of kids and families will still be the best option for kids,” Wong says.

As of Monday, Manitoba had 503 active COVID-19 cases. The province’s test positivity rate is sitting at three per cent.

Back in Morden, Chawrun hopes the return to school runs smoothly.

She is worried about the potential for outbreaks and moving to remote learning but she says her daughters are excited to return to the classroom.

“That’s, you know, something that I don’t want to take away from them,” she said. “I’m hoping that the school year will be able to happen.”

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