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May. 25, 2022 | Wednesday
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Hirji wants COVID added to Immunization of School Pupils Act, so unvaccinated kids can be suspended if necessary
Dr. Mustafa Hirji said public health should be able to suspend unvaccinated students. (File)

Only 43.6 per cent of Niagara kids have one COVID shot so far

Niagara’s top doctor says parents need to get their children vaccinated, or they should have to make a legal declaration about vaccinations that could result in their child being suspended from school.

Just 43.6 per cent of kids in Niagara are vaccinated, Dr. Mustafa Hirji told a news conference Monday. And the region's data shows only 3.6 per cent of kids have two doses.

Hirji said it would make him feel a lot more comfortable sending kids back to school if parents get their children vaccinated.

“One area where I continue to feel a little disappointed is the uptake we’ve had amongst age five to 11 children,” Niagara Region's acting chief medical officer said.

He wants to see that number closer to 80 per cent and said public health will be doing a lot more promotion of kids’ vaccines.

Hirji has been advocating for COVID-19 to be added to the provincial Immunization of School Pupils Act, which would allow unvaccinated students to be removed from classrooms if there is an outbreak.

But Hirji said the province hasn’t been listening.

“I’m disappointed that the province continues not to add COVID-19 as a 10th disease where we would use the Immunization of School Pupils (Act) to protect students,” he said.

“This act exists to protect students and teachers from outbreaks of infection in school," he said.

It "just makes logical sense" that COVID be added to the statute.

Youngsters need vaccines, “so they’re going to have that additional margin of safety when they get to school,” he said.

Schools “are essential in our society,” he said.

“Too often we’ve had a conversation of whether school should be open, and I think the conversation should have always been that schools should be open, (but) what can we do to protect kids even more in terms of their attendance at school, so they have great protection.”

With cases so high, a lack of testing, low vaccine rates for kids, and close quarters in schools, Hirji said there is still lots we can do to protect our children.

Tightening mask exemptions, prioritizing students for PCR and rapid testing, improving ventilation in schools, and maximizing distance between students by lowering class sizes are among his suggestions.

He said public health will work with the school boards to test ventilation in classrooms and improve air quality.

The region is looking at other ways to pull unvaccinated kids from class should there be an infection.

“If we do see unvaccinated people in a class where we are seeing infections, we would be looking perhaps to have them isolated out of the class to make sure we limit the spread of infection and keep everybody protected in that classroom.”

Without the addition of COVID-19 to the Immunization of School Pupils Act, health officials can only suggest to  parents “that if your child is unvaccinated, they should be staying home at this point.”

He also clarified that the act doesn’t make vaccines mandatory for kids, but requires parents to make a legal declaration, which public health can then act on.

“So they either get the child vaccinated, they submit a legal notarized document saying that they have a conscientious objection to getting their child vaccinated, or they submit a medical exemption that their child cannot be vaccinated. Any one of those three is acceptable,” he said.

Once the documents are in place, it “becomes a tool we can use to perhaps manage the outbreak by suspending students who are unvaccinated.”

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