Peel region sees below-average childhood vaccination rates amid Omicron surge

Peel Region falls short of the provincial average in vaccinating children ages five to 11, and community health professionals say a concerted outreach effort will be needed to reach the targets.

The lower vaccination rate is more marked in low-income neighborhoods in the region, a trend that has occurred in past waves.

That re-emerging trend indicates that health disparities, mistrust in the health care system that has harmed racialized and immigrant groups, and a lack of clear public health messages are affecting whether residents take their children to get vaccinated, community leaders told the Estrella.

With schools reopening this week, the need to vaccinate the youngest eligible children has become more urgent as the Omicron variant continues to drive case counts, increased hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

While Peel met the goal set by the Ministry of Health of 33 percent of the age group needing to be vaccinated by the end of December, Peel has a very socially, culturally and economically diverse community that requires more trust to be built, he said. Dr. Lawrence Loh, the region’s medical director of health.

“This is not an easy job,” he said. “We don’t have a wealthy laptop class like other communities … we’re doing the hard work of trying to go door to door, trying to get people to trust, especially when it comes to kids.”

Loh also noted that Peel has a higher population of children than other major regions, so it may take longer to vaccinate the five- to 11-year-old age group. According to the 2016 census, about 18% of Peel’s population was 14 years old or younger, compared to 14.5% in Toronto.

As of Wednesday, about 40 percent of Peel children ages five to 11 have received at least one dose, compared with about 47 percent of the Ontario population in that demographic.

Although Peel achieved a high rate of adult vaccination, Loh said convincing people of the relative benefits to their children amid a historical mistrust of the health care system has been a challenge.

There are stark differences when examining specific neighborhoods in Peel. The lowest vaccination rate, 21.6 percent, is in the L4T zip code, which encompasses the Malton and Ridgewood neighborhoods. That area has a median household income of $72,000 before taxes, according to the 2016 census.

In contrast, Peel’s highest childhood vaccination rate, 59 percent, is L5H in Mississauga, which covers the Lorne Park neighborhood. The median household income in the area is $207,787.

Peel’s beleaguered health care system is also experiencing strain once again from the influx of Omicron cases, with the urgent care center at Peel Memorial Center closing for at least three weeks to divert staff to where there are Greater demand.

Loh said uptake has been affected by a lack of confidence in the vaccine due to mistrust in the health care system that has harmed marginalized groups in the past. Parents also want confidence in their children’s health choices, and lack of certainty can slow the pace, he said.

“And I can fully appreciate it as a parent of kids in that age group,” he said. “If anything, I hasten to share with our community that I vaccinated my eligible children the first night it was open only because I knew how important it was for our children to access that protection.”

To build trust, Peel is running additional community vaccination clinics, including a Sunday afternoon at the Save Max Sports Center in Brampton for children and their guardians. The region is also home to clinics in 25 public schools in January and February.

Medical professionals in the community have also noted the lower childhood vaccination rate and are trying to remedy this through increased outreach.

Dr. Ripudaman Minhas, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and a Brampton resident, runs an online health literacy program via Instagram and TikTok in English and Punjabi to answer questions about the vaccine.

His initiative called Punjabi Kid’s Health allows parents to submit questions about various health topics, including COVID-19 and vaccination. Minhas said common concerns include misconceptions about side effects and not understanding the need. He said some families felt children didn’t need it, thinking previous waves posed less risk to children than adults.

“Parents feel weary of this ongoing evolution of our knowledge of the vaccine and the pandemic and the biological aspects of it…but what is perceived is a lack of clarity in the messages,” he said.

It’s important to continue to engage with communities, as it can be difficult for public health organizations to anticipate what the questions and concerns might be, he said.

“This is a very different dialogue than what we had heard about the apprehensions around adult vaccines,” he said.

In Brampton, Roots Community Services, a community organization that serves the needs of black residents, has anticipated that the five- to 11-year-old age group may be more difficult to vaccinate, said Executive Director Angela Carter.

Black, African, and Caribbean communities have additional questions about more health care interventions due to historical racism in health care and the neglect of their communities, so it can be difficult to ask communities to come forward to vaccinate more members of their families, Carter said.

That’s why Roots is holding more clinics at the end of the month and through February, as well as webinars so trusted health professionals can be asked questions about the childhood vaccine and the booster shot, he said.

“Any time you have to get people to trust a system that they distrusted for so long, it takes time,” he said.

“There are still a lot of questions and confusion,” he added. “They need the message to be clear and direct.”

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