The HKPR district health unit estimates up to 7,000 students in the region aren’t up to date on childhood vaccinations.

Children attending school in Ontario must receive nine vaccinations against preventable diseases such as polio and measles. Due to COVID-19, the health unit paused the enforcement of rules, governed by the Immunization of Schools Pupils Act (ISPA).

For example, the health unit did not mail notices to families of students overdue for vaccinations this school year and students who missed vaccinations such as the Meningitis vaccine were not suspended, explained Marianne Rock. The registered nurse in the unit’s health protection division delivered a report on the school immunization program at a June 16 board of health meeting.

In-school immunizations resumed in 2021, with 44 schools visited over a period of 28 days.

Hepatitis B, HPV and Meningitis immunizations were administered to 5,352 students this school year.

The unit offered those vaccines to both grade seven and grade eight students, who missed the vaccines in the 2020/2021 school year.

The Ontario government has removed some requirements of the ISPA, allowing high schoolers to get catch-up vaccinations without risk of suspension.

“For a full year, we didn’t go into school… this meant a lot of students in grades nine to 12 didn’t get the vaccines,” Rock said.

It was also more difficult for teens to access vaccines outside of school, Rock said, since doctors’ offices and clinics were closed or operating virtually,

Rock said the unit is communicating with school boards and doctors’ offices about promoting vaccinations among youth.

“We’re trying to make sure we do our best efforts to make sure we get kids into our health unit clinics this summer.”

COVID-19 causes program delays

Multiple other HKPR programs aren’t running at full speed either.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Natalie Bocking said this is primarily due to lingering effects of COVID-19, with staff redeployed to pandemic response or simply changing roles.

“We’ve had a large amount of staff movement in the organization,” Bocking said. “Staff might move to a new position [and then] it’s an entire domino effect that’s repeated itself over the past year.”

Nearly all of the unit’s core environmental health services, such as safe water monitoring, food inspections and small drinking systems inspections, are fully online.

Other programs such as daycare immunization, school vision health and injury prevention awareness, are still not fully operational.

Bocking estimated the unit will resume its full suite of programming by 2023.

“The big question for all of us moving forward is how we can respond to future waves without disrupting programming at the same time,” she said.

Monitoring for monkeypox

Bocking said the health unit will monitor for cases of monkeypox, a viral disease first discovered in laboratory monkeys.

In Canada, 168 cases of the disease have been confirmed. Bocking said the current levels of human-to-human transmission of monkeypox are “unprecedented,” however she said it’s unlikely to impact Canada or the HKPR region as COVID-19 did.

“I’m not concerned it will be widely transmitted across the region,” said Bocking

Monkeypox symptoms include rash, oral/ genital lesions, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, fever, chills and muscle aches and pain.

“If monkeypox starts to impact populations that are vulnerable… it could have an impact on public health,” she said.