Greece, Italy and a handful of other European Union nations began vaccinating children aged 5-11 against COVID-19 on Wednesday as EU governments braced both for a holiday season of gatherings and the quickly spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.
Acrobats dressed as superheroes rappelled down the walls of a hospital in Milan, Italy, as the city prepared to join the new vaccine rollout. Wearing capes and bodysuits, they stopped to greet patients through the windows at a pandemic ward and other children at a pediatric wing.
Youngsters getting their first shot in Greece were given stickers and the day off from school. Greece administered its first shots to younger children hours after authorities announced the country’s highest daily death toll of the pandemic: 130 people. Among the first to respond was Greek Education Minister Niki Kerameus.
“I won’t hide the fact that on a personal level, after having talked with doctors and receiving scientific data, our family decided to vaccinate our son, who is 5½ years old,” Kerameus said before taking her son, Loukas, to get his shot at an Athens hospital.
Dr. Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s Superior Health Council who guided the country through the first wave of the pandemic, urged Italian families to take part in the new vaccine program, hoping to boost the country’s already high vaccination rate amid a new spike in infections.
“Consider this an appeal to all families,” Locatelli said. “Take advantage of this opportunity. Talk to your pediatrician. Vaccinate your children. Do it for them. Show them how much you love your children by giving them the maximum protection possible.”
Spain and Hungary also expanded their vaccination programs to younger children. EU regulators last month approved a reduced-dose vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech for use in the 5-11 age group.
A two-month surge in infections across Europe eased slightly in early December, but the appearance of the Omicron variant has created uncertainty. According to an early analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where Omicron is driving a surge in infections, the variant seems to be more easily spread from person to person and better at evading vaccines, but also milder. WHO officials have cautioned that much more needs to be understood about the new variant, and officials have urged caution.
A top EU official said Wednesday that the bloc expects Omicron to dominate infections in the EU by mid-January. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control suggested that governments consider travel-related restrictions and press ahead with vaccination campaigns and booster shots.
Vaccines for children are voluntary in all EU countries and require parental approval.
Authorities in Spain have set an ambitious target for vaccinating younger children before the customary family gatherings at Christmas. Nearly 90 per cent of the country’s residents 12 and older have received two vaccine doses.
Poland, Portugal, Croatia and Slovenia plan to lower their vaccine eligibility age later this week.
Several hundred people protested Wednesday in front of the government headquarters in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The protesters chanted, “Don’t kill our kids!” and, “We won’t give you our children!”
The World Health Organization says more evidence is needed on COVID-19 vaccines in children for it to make general recommendations about their use in kids. It has also advocated to ensure people most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 — which includes the elderly, people with weaker immune systems and health-care workers — have access to vaccines around the world.
Some EU nations are taking a different approach to vaccinating younger children. Germany has started a region-based rollout, the Netherlands is waiting until after the holidays, and France is prioritizing children who suffer from heart and respiratory problems, obesity and diabetes.
Britain was slower than many European countries to start vaccinating children ages 12-15, and it has not yet approved vaccines for younger children. Wei Shen Lim, a member of the U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said the group expected to make a decision before Christmas but was awaiting a recommendation from British regulators.
Conservative lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister, criticized the delay on approving vaccines for younger children.
“Our regulators, having been the nimblest in the world, are now taking too long,” he said.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 10:55 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Wednesday morning, more than 271.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.3 million.
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea warned it may reinstate stricter physical distancing curbs as it posted a record daily tally due to a persistent spike in breakthrough infections among those vaccinated and serious cases.
In the Americas, the Biden administration may request additional funds from Congress for COVID-19 testing, depending on the severity of the Omicron variant, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said.
The reported pandemic death toll in the U.S. surpassed 800,000 this week, as hospitals in several states feel the strain of surging COVID-19 case loads.
In Africa, health officials across the continent reported more than 167,000 new cases of COVID-19 last week, an increase of 111 per cent from the previous week, according to a weekly epidemiological summary published by the World Health Organization.
According to the report, the highest number of cases in Africa were reported in:
- South Africa, with 109,053 new cases.
- Zimbabwe, with 26,479 new cases.
- Mauritius, with 6,415 new cases.
There were “just under 500 new deaths, a number similar to the number reported in the previous week,” according to the report, with the highest number of deaths in South Africa, Mauritius and Algeria.
In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday reported 148 new cases of COVID-19 and no additional deaths.
-From Reuters, CBC News and The Associated Press, last updated at 7:20 a.m. ET