Public health playing catch-up with Grade 7 in-school vaccination program

GUELPH – Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) wants parents of children in Grades 7, 8 and 9 to know their child’s vaccination series might not be complete.

This is not the COVID-19 vaccine, but the series it administers in schools to Grade 7 students for hepatitis B (Hep B), human papillomavirus (HPV) and quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate (MCV-4).

The board of health heard at its Feb. 2 meeting that because of COVID-19, the Grade 7 in-school immunization program was interrupted in 2020 and has only run sporadically since.

That means students who were in Grade 7 in the 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 (this year) school years may not have received all or any of the vaccines.

Hep B and HPV require two doses, so public health nurses are typically in schools twice a year.

Manager of vaccine preventable diseases Karen Mulvey said the program was administered as usual in fall of 2019 but those students missed their second dose when schools were closed in spring of 2020.

The in-school immunization program didn’t run at all last year (2020-21) and when it resumed this past October, it targeted both Grade 7 and Grade 8 students to capture the missed cohort.

But with class closures, school closures and student absences due to COVID-19 and online learners not even in the building, Mulvey said she’s certain many current students have missed the first round.

She said 52% of all Grade 7s and 49% of Grade 8s got their first dose in the fall, and that’s a big drop from pre-pandemic averages of 70 to 85%.

“Vaccination is part of our accountability indicators and across the province; these vaccination rates have dropped dramatically,” said Rita Isley, chief nursing officer and director of community health.

“This will have implications for years to come.”

Mulvey’s team has put together a strategy to capture as many students as they can from those three cohorts before summer:

  • public health nurses will return to schools this spring to complete the series for current Grade 7 and 8 students;
  • catch-up clinics will be held in high schools this winter to capture the 2019-20 Grade 7s who are now in Grade 9 (38% of this cohort is overdue), however clinics will not be held in every high school;
  • primary care givers can also vaccinate patients. Since January 2020 they have administered 8,760 doses to patients in the age group; and
  • there will also be satellite clinics, with details to come.

“It’s not just about getting the vaccine, it’s the long-term impact,” said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer.

“The issue is many parents don’t realize their child missed the vaccine in Grade 7 or 8. It’s something their child gets at school, so they don’t normally think about it.

“Our problem is not that we don’t have the resources, it’s finding the people (who need the shot). That gets harder when they are not in grade school.”

Mercer asked parents to check their child’s immunization record and if they are missing one or all of this series, they should contact public health or their family doctor to find out where to get it.

“This is going to take a number of years to get caught up,” she said.