Much can be debated about the Pallister government’s pandemic reopening strategy, including the speed at which the province plans to ease public-health restrictions. However, there is one significant — and possibly dangerous — omission that requires immediate attention: there are no provisions in the reopening plan to protect unvaccinated children under 12 when they return to school in September.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the province plans to send most K-12 students back to in-person classes in the fall. Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, reaffirmed that on Monday.
"We know how important in-class learning is for schools and we’re really going to do whatever we can to continue to make that safe," he said.
The trouble is, neither Mr. Cullen nor Dr. Roussin has explained to Manitobans how the province plans to make schools safe for unvaccinated children.
While manufacturers such as Pfizer are conducting clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12, they are not expected to be approved by regulators prior to the beginning of the school year. Vaccines for this age group may not be available until 2022. Even if they are approved earlier, it would take months to get most students fully vaccinated with two doses.Dr. Roussin rightly points out that children are at lower risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 and do not transmit the virus as efficiently as adults do. High vaccine uptake among those over 12 also reduces community transmission, which further mitigates risk for children, he said.
"The best way to protect those who can’t be vaccinated is for all other people to be vaccinated," Dr. Roussin said.
Those are valid arguments. But less risk does not mean no risk. When unvaccinated kids return to school, there will likely be transmission among students and staff, as there was before in-person learning ended in May. Even though the risk of serious illness among children is low, there are still documented cases of severe outcomes in that age group. There are also long-term effects from COVID-19, which can affect all ages, that are still being studied.
Presumably, most adults who come into contact with unvaccinated children, including family members and school staff, will be fully immunized and therefore largely protected from severe outcomes. However, no vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Infected students can still transmit the virus to vaccinated adults, who may become severely ill — a risk that is particularly significant those with underlying health conditions.
"The best way to protect those who can’t be vaccinated is for all other people to be vaccinated;" ‐ Dr. Roussin, chief public health officer
The greater the spread among students, the more difficult it will be to control community transmission. That’s especially true now that the more contagious Delta variant, which is present in all health regions of the province, is circulating more widely. What may have worked to control the spread of the virus in schools prior to the arrival of the Delta strain may be less effective in the fall.
Drafting a comprehensive plan to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 within schools should be a top priority of government. The province needs a plan that includes improved ventilation in school buildings and stricter measures around the cohorting of students. That plan should be made public and implemented immediately. Government has the entire summer to upgrade ventilation systems in schools and put in place a strategy that will better protect children from COVID-19 when they return to class in September.
Failure to do so could have severe consequences.