Skip to main content

Seven-year-old Lorena Limdao is given her COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Kevin Evelyn of UHN as twin sister Mabel and eleven-year-old brother William wait after receiving theirs at a vaccine clinic in the Jane and Finch Mall in Toronto on Jan. 13.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, retracted remarks he made this week on COVID-19 vaccinations for children after critics charged he was worrying vaccine-hesitant parents and fuelling conspiracy theorists. But some experts say the remarks were just a repetition of the National Advisory Council on Immunization’s current position.

The controversy, which prompted Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca to call for Dr. Moore to clarify his statements or be fired, was seen by some as the latest communication misstep for the province as it scrambles to deal with a massive wave of cases caused by the Omicron variant, and tries to encourage the faster vaccination of both children and adults.

The province’s top doctor was asked Wednesday why Ontario had not put the COVID-19 vaccine on the list of shots that students attending public schools are required to receive (or to seek exemptions for), which includes measles, mumps and other communicable diseases.

Despite rise in hospitalizations of kids with COVID-19, Omicron variant appears less severe

“It is a new vaccine,” he responded. “And as a result of that we want greater experience with it before we’d ever mandate it. And I don’t think any jurisdiction in Canada has mandated the vaccine to date. I always would like to see a higher uptake of the vaccine.”

Dr. Moore went on to urge parents to go ahead and get their kids the shot, which he called safe and effective.

Mr. Del Duca, along with Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, seized on the remarks. Mr. Del Duca, who has previously called for the COVID-19 vaccines to be added to those required in schools, said the comments played into the hands of people who spread misinformation. Ms. Horwath also called them troubling, and another example of Premier Doug Ford’s tendency to “coddle anti-vaxxers.”

In his initial reply, Dr. Moore also said U.S. numbers indicated that vaccinating children between the ages of five and 11 was providing “significant protection against the rare risk of hospitalization in children.”

Within an hour, Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office issued a follow-up statement from Dr. Moore, saying the pediatric Pfizer vaccine is “safe, effective and provides strong protection against COVID-19 and variants” and encouraging all children to get the shot as soon as possible. This seemed to satisfy Mr. Del Duca.

The next day, when asked about the issue by a reporter, Dr. Moore went a step further, retracting his remarks about the vaccine’s novelty and saying the reason Ontario has not added it to the list of required shots for schools is because of the burden this would place on already strapped local public-health units. He said the policy would be reviewed “once things calm down.”

He also explained that Ontario’s current rules require parents to report their children’s vaccination status for school attendance. Parents are able to decline to give a child a vaccine but must go through a process to get an exemption, which includes an education component.

“There’s no vaccine that’s been made mandatory in Ontario,” Dr. Moore said.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases doctor with Toronto’s University Health Network, said there was nothing inaccurate with Dr. Moore’s initial statement and that it aligned with NACI’s current position.

A November statement from NACI says the Pfizer vaccine approved for ages five to 11 ″may be offered” to children.

“Given the short-term uncertainties surrounding pediatric vaccination at this time, children and their parents or guardians should be supported and respected in their decisions regarding COVID-19 vaccinations for the child, whatever decisions they make, and should not be stigmatized for accepting, or not accepting, the vaccination offer,” it reads.

The statement also notes that the young are far less likely than the old to suffer severe illness from COVID-19, and that children must be monitored for any emergence of rare side effects after receiving a dose.

The stress of the pandemic has made nuance difficult in debates about almost every issue related to COVID-19, Dr. Bogoch said.

“Every single parent in a province of 14 million is watching, so you have to be very careful with your words. And perhaps it could have been phrased better.” Despite Dr. Moore’s comments kicking up a storm on social media, “the content wasn’t wrong. … This was blown way out of proportion,” Dr. Bogoch said.

Martha Fulford, an infectious diseases doctor at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University, said any move to require a COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance would need to take into account the lower risk children face from the disease and the fact that vaccines are no longer considered as effective as once thought against transmission. Many European countries have not even offered the shots widely to younger children, she noted.

Basically, Dr. Moore was paraphrasing the NACI document, she said. “To quote the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s guidelines and then be criticized for it – it’s a little weird.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.