Story by Sneh Duggal and Jessica Smith Cross
Data analysis and visualization by Jessica Smith Cross
With students going back to class in a matter of weeks, some families are anxious to know what kind of protection vaccines will be providing at their local schools.
Unfortunately, it appears as though only one public health unit — Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph — has been publicly posting the percentage of students vaccinated with first and second doses at individual high schools.
But there are data courtesy of ICES that can help families get a better picture — and it's particularly useful for high schools. The research institute has published vaccination rates for neighbourhoods, defined by the first three digits of the postal code, for the entire province, broken down by age group. The data are for first doses as of Aug. 8. That indicates potential rates of fully vaccinated individuals by the fall and allows for optimism that first-dose figures will have risen by then.
We've used that data to match each high school in Ontario with its surrounding area, and mapped out the vaccination rates for all ages, as well as for the 12–15 and 16–17 age groups to give families a picture of the vaccination rates of the student population. (Note, in some areas the vaccination totals exceed 100 per cent in some age groups — this comes from the provincial source data, in which more vaccinations were recorded than the official population count.)
You can use this map to explore the first-dose vaccination rates in the postal code areas surrounding each Ontario high school by hovering over, or clicking on, the dots. You can select an individual high school by typing into the drop-down menu at the top, and select "All" to return to view all schools. You can search for a municipality or postal code area by typing it into the magnifying glass on the upper left corner of the map. You can use your cursor, or fingers, to pan and zoom around the map and pressing the home icon will bring you back to a full view of the province. If you're on a phone, it's best viewed in landscape mode. The analysis was inspired by similar work for Toronto by CTV.
When the province released its back-to-school guidance last week, it didn’t include anything about the vaccination rates, or individual vaccination status, of students or staff members.
Asked why that is, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the province is tracking high school vaccination rates at a population level and that the numbers were “tracking in a very good direction.”
Moore said individual vaccination status would be determined if there is an outbreak at a school.
“It will be disclosed, though, if we ever have to investigate,” he said. “Health units, though, can on an average for their population come out with what proportion of students are protected.”
Asked if all health units should be required to post student vaccination rates, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday she thinks it’s better for communities to have access to more information.
“I think full transparency only helps us to encourage people to get the vaccines,” Horwath said. “I've always been in favour of more and not less when it comes to information and when it comes to transparency and I think that oftentimes it’s that very information that spurs action and that helps us to get a handle on what the goal is, what the goal is that we need to reach.”
She said achieving vaccination goals would be difficult if vaccination rates aren't known.
“If one health unit can do it, then so can others and I think that helps — it helps parents, but … what it also does is I think it helps to reinforce for all those Ontarians that have worked so hard to do the right thing, to get their vaccines, to step up and try to protect themselves, their families, their communities, each other, from this virus.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the vaccination status of staff and students should have been tracked “from the very beginning.”
He said that his older daughter was not asked when she received her first dose if she was a student or where she went to school, but she was asked during her second dose what school she attended.
“So this kind of very arbitrary, ad hoc approach … this just makes no sense to me,” he said. “All of this information should have been tracked in a secure and reliable way."
The vaccination picture for schools depends on the neighbourhoods they're located in — parts of Waterloo, Toronto, Ottawa and Peterborough have particularly high vaccination rates for the whole population, and their school-aged teens too.
The high schools in the neighbourhood with the highest vaccination rates are Waterloo Collegiate Institute and St. David Catholic Secondary School, both in the N2L postal code area of Waterloo where nearly 86 per cent of the population had had a first shot by Aug. 8, and 83 per cent of 16-to-17-year olds and 70 per cent of 12-to-15-year olds had had theirs.
At the other end of the spectrum is East Elgin Secondary School, in Aylmer, Ontario. The community, profiled in the Globe and Mail for its low vaccination rates, had an overall first-dose rate of 46 per cent, with 16-to-17-year-olds at 34 per cent and 12-to-15-year-olds at 27 per cent.
Schools in Rainy River, Petawawa and Hearst are in areas with low overall vaccination rates, as are other schools in Cornwall and Amherstburg.
QP Briefing contacted all 34 public health units about the idea of publishing vaccination rates by individual schools and, of the 28 that responded before publication, all but Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health confirmed that they were not currently publishing this information.
Several cited “incomplete” data in the provincial COVaxON system or a fear of “stigmatization” as reasons for not doing so.
The analysis this story is based on is different — it shows the rate of vaccination among residents of the surrounding postal code area, not of the school population itself.
Eleven health units said they have no plans to publish school-specific data in the future — including the Brant County Health Unit, Durham Region Health Department and Southwestern Public Health — with another 11 saying they were undecided or would consider publishing this information if the data quality improved.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, which started publishing its data on July 22, said it decided to do so because it favours transparency where possible.
“With schools reopening, we felt this information would be useful to parents, students and schools in making decisions for the fall,” the health unit said in an emailed response, noting that feedback has been “extremely positive.”
The health unit said it was able to link data from COVaxON, the provincial immunization database, with its “existing database for tracking school-based immunizations (Panorama). This allowed us to compare COVID-19 vaccinations against the 2020-21 school registration data which we used as the denominator to approximate the vaccination rate.”
Bill Eekhof, a spokesperson for the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit, said they don’t plan to report school-specific COVID-19 vaccine rates and that it "has not been our past practice to do so for other vaccine-preventable diseases either."
Grey Bruce Health Unit spokesperson Drew Ferguson labelled this issue as a "complex" one.
"The sources of the data can be complex and there are data gaps so veracity for comparative analysis is a potential issue," Ferguson noted when explaining why the health unit isn’t currently publishing school vaccination rates.
For example, he said that while students might be registered to schools in COVaxOn, the provincial immunization database, staff aren’t.
"Do we use their postal code as a proxy? In rural areas especially, many teachers and staff live nowhere near the school they work in," he said, adding that if the province were to require health units to publish this information, they would "need clear direction on a universal approach."
The Middlesex-London Health Unit said incomplete data on the number of students or staff vaccinated based on their schools and the number of people eligible for vaccinations at each school due to population movement make it challenging to publish this information.
"Any coverage estimates by school that could be published at this time would not likely present an accurate estimate of the true vaccination coverage," said spokesperson Dan Flaherty in an email.
"If we had confidence that the data we have available provided an accurate representation of the vaccination coverage for each school, we would work with our partners, including the school boards and school communities, to consider ways the information could be shared publicly,” he said.
Brittany Cadence, a spokesperson for Peterborough Public Health, explained in detail where some of the data gaps stem from, noting that not all 12 to 17-year-olds who were vaccinated in the region had a school listed in COVaxOn.
She said that if a health-care provider selected the reason for vaccination for a 12–17-year-old as "Youth 12+," a school name, if known, would need to be entered. If another reason was selected in the system, such as “other priority population” or “age-eligible populations,” these would “not require the health-care provider to enter in a school name as a mandatory field, and only one reason for immunization can be selected.” Therefore, a school name might not be recorded in the system.
“Since the data isn’t as reliable as we’d like, we’re not planning to report on this, and have other ways of targeting youth vaccinations,” Cadence said, adding that the health unit does plan to hold clinics in schools this fall.
Hamilton Public Health Services and York Region Public Health sent similar responses, with the former saying it is unable to report vaccination rates for schools “because the data that we are able to access are incomplete.”
The Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Public Health said it would consider releasing vaccination data for groups of schools if data quality improved.
“The data quality and school linkage need to be improved to accurately represent rates,” said spokesperson Jenn Fagan, adding that privacy concerns “as it could be identifiable in smaller schools” and the possibility of stigmatizing certain schools or individuals are other reasons this information is currently not being published.
Ottawa Public Health shared the concern that school vaccination rates “could stigmatize particular school communities.” It is currently publishing vaccination rates in the region by age and by neighbourhoods.
Preliminary analysis done by the health unit showed that about 27 per cent of vaccinated youth in Ottawa didn’t have a school entered in COVaxOn.
“Public health units have the duty to protect the confidentiality and anonymity of this personal health information,” the health unit said. “While we are considering how to use anonymized, aggregated data to schools and school boards to support targeted campaigns to improve the accessibility and uptake in schools with low vaccine rates, we would have to be very careful about weighing the pros and cons of reporting this data publicly.”
Ottawa Public Health added that “systemic barriers to vaccines in certain neighbourhoods might result in lower vaccine rates for students in schools, and this data being made public might stigmatize the school or community while not in and of itself helping to improve vaccine uptake.”
Toronto Public Health also noted that less than 50 per cent of its vaccinated youth had a school identified in COVaxOn as of mid-July.
“TPH is exploring options for linking different data sets once approvals are received to enable a more complete vaccination coverage rate by schools to be determined, and has been in touch with the Ministry of Health to discuss this,” the health unit said.
Meanwhile, Peel Public Health said it is currently waiting on enrolment data, which it should have access to by mid-September. Spokesperson Trish Krale said the health unit would look into sharing vaccination rates on its dashboard or by request once it has this information.