By Elizabeth Benner

Now that Ontario youth ages 12-17 can book their COVID-19 vaccine, caregivers and teens may be wondering if this is the right step for them.

Dr. Anne Wormsbecker

Dr. Anne Wormsbecker, a pediatrician based at St. Michael’s Hospital and current interim chief of pediatrics at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, is a good person to turn to for insight. As a researcher, she has examined data on the pneumococcal and chicken pox vaccines. She helped guide the Ontario government on immunization science as a medical epidemiologist at Public Health Ontario. And as a parent and pediatrician, Dr. Wormsbecker is aware of the challenges and concerns which may arise when vaccinating this age group.

We spoke to Dr. Wormsbecker about what every parent – and teen – should know about the opportunity to get the shot.

As a researcher, what drew you to vaccines as a special area of interest?

When I moved to Ontario for residency in 2004, it was the same year that more vaccines [for children and toddlers] were rolled out in Ontario, one of which was chicken pox. In my early years in residency, we would still see babies and toddlers hospitalized with complications of chicken pox or even older kids with very severe complications. But towards the end of my training, it was almost unheard of to have kids admitted to hospital with these complications of chicken pox and I found that so inspiring. I think that’s what drew me to look at immunization programs at a population level and look at their impact. The opportunity to share that knowledge broadly was also exciting to me — the idea of an intervention that is available on a large scale to everybody, changing the trajectory of children’s health.

What was your reaction when you heard the Ontario government is expanding vaccinations to young people between 12-17?

I was really excited to hear this! As a pediatrician, I know that kids have suffered from what has been labelled the ‘parallel pandemic’ of mental health challenges related to prolonged school closures. I’m hoping that by vaccinating children and youth, we can get kids back to school and back to their regular activities as soon as possible.

With Ontario’s stay at home order extended and school and many other extra-curricular activities being taught online right now, why is it important to vaccinate kids?

The main reason to get kids vaccinated is to get them back to school and back to their regular activities. We do know with this third wave of the pandemic, younger individuals are becoming sicker with COVID-19, so it does offer some individual protection to the children and youth who are vaccinated. Also by vaccinating those 12 and above, we help to get to a state of community protection, or herd immunity, by getting a large proportion of the population immune so transmission is reduced.

Are there any reasons for why a young person shouldn’t get the vaccine yet, for example pre-existing conditions?

The vast majority of children and youth can get the COVID-19 vaccine. It is extremely rare to have a medical condition that is contradiction to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is recommended to wait two weeks after getting another vaccine to get COVID-19 vaccine. Also, we don’t give immunizations if you’re sick. So if you have a fever and you’re staying home in bed because you’re sick, that’s not the time to get a vaccine. I really encourage parents and kids to speak with their healthcare providers to ask questions about their own personal health situations.  

What can parents expect when their child is vaccinated?

Parents can expect very similar side effects to those they have seen if they themselves have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or if they recall their child getting an influenza vaccine or perhaps their grade 7 vaccines. Certainly the arm where the vaccine was injected will be sore – that’s a good thing! It means your body is mounting an immune response. As well you can feel as if you worked out. So, you might be really tired, have sore muscles – sore legs, arms and other places on your body. Some people might feel as if they have a flu-like illness and want to rest more and have a fever. I learned from St. Joseph’s colleague who had read US Centers for Disease Control advice to get your vaccine in your dominant arm rather than your non-dominant arm because you move it and use it more, you may have less pain because you’ve kept it active rather and your circulation has distributed the immune response throughout your body rather than just in the muscle.

If a young person is reading this who wants to be vaccinated but has a vaccine-hesitant caregiver, how should they navigate that situation?

These kids can be vaccinated! In Ontario, the law very clearly states there is no formal age of health-care consent. As long as you are understanding of the information provided to you and able to weigh the pros and cons of a decision you are able to provide consent regardless of your age.

It’s important for children and youth to know [about consent], always. No matter the health care decisions you’re making: If you understand the benefits of a treatment, the drawbacks of a treatment and the risks of not being treated, you’re able to consent.

Is there anything else I missed that you think is important for parents to know?

It’s really important not to dismiss kids’ anxiety prior to getting a needle. For me, the COVID-19 vaccine injection was not painful at all. However, some people really feel uncomfortable getting vaccines. We are so fortunate that we have numerous strategies to help manage pain and I would never want pain to be a reason for someone to avoid getting a COVID-19 vaccine. If your child is nervous about getting vaccinated, you can access online resources or use some mindfulness strategies to prepare for immunization.  Other ways to make the experience more positive include placement of a numbing cream beforehand, distractions, deep breathing, listening to music while getting your vaccine — the list goes on. I can’t stress enough the importance of providing a patient-friendly vaccine environment considering children and youth may feel some discomfort around the vaccine experience. If your child has special health care needs, these needs can be accommodated at the time of immunization.

Last, COVID-19 vaccine saves lives! It works. If you or your family member is eligible for a vaccine, get one.