Children with a health condition putting them at high risk from Covid-19 face a return to school later this week without the protection of a vaccine, with infection levels at unprecedented heights around the country.
A number of parents fear their vulnerable children have become “lost in a sea of other children” registered on the HSE’s online portal, having received no date for a vaccination appointment despite registering more than a week ago when they became eligible on December 28th.
The HSE has since opened registration to all children aged 5-11, with approximately 50,300 children in this cohort registered for a vaccine as of Tuesday morning, and said it expects to begin vaccination of those outside of priority groups later this week.
However, Dublin mother Catherine Rossiter said her eight-year-old daughter Aoife, who falls into the HSE’s high-risk priority group for Covid vaccination as she has cerebral palsy, has yet to receive a vaccination appointment.
“I've been isolated at home with Aoife and her twin brother since Christmas Eve because the cases were high... I thought I don't want her to get Covid so close to getting the vaccine because the Government initially said that she would be getting the vaccine sometime later this week,” she said.
“So we've been isolating at home, not mixing, waiting for the vaccine. She's going back to school and now I have absolutely no date for a vaccine. I don't even have one in a week’s time, two weeks’ time.”
Another parent Niamh Shine, whose nine-year-old daughter Éabha O’Mahony attends school with Aoife, said she also has no appointment and has been told her medically vulnerable daughter may have to wait up to three weeks for one.
Amid soaring infection numbers, she is considering postponing her return to school: “I don't know what to do. I was waiting to see if there was some chance that they might stagger back to school, but of course, that's not happening.”
‘The floodgates have opened’
A third parent, Andrea Stanley, said her five-year-old daughter Grace is also yet to receive an appointment after registered just after midnight on December 28th.
“I think even more frustrating is when the portal opened up yesterday for everyone else. It's [like] the floodgates have opened,” she said.
Ms Stanley said Grace, who has a rare genetic condition and falls into the category of high risk due to her intellectual disability, relies on school for socialisation but will now have to return unvaccinated.
“She's an only child so she relies on school. As well as her education, it's all about the social aspect as well for her... the holidays are long and she thoroughly enjoys going to school,” she said.
“We'd be very reluctant to keep her off but... there's a lot of worry there. I'm pregnant as well myself. So that's another worry, you don't want [Covid] getting brought into the house either.”
All three parents cited difficulties with flagging their child as high risk upon initial registration on the HSE system, having to follow up by phone.
“Myself and the other parents were thrilled that this was finally happening and [registration] was opening on the 28th,” Ms Rossiter said, whose daughter Aoife is under several teams at Temple Street Children’s Hospital and has “fairly regular” hospital admissions, with a tube draining her brain fluid into her abdomen her “biggest risk.”
“I stayed up till midnight on the 27th and at five minutes to midnight I thought that the portal was open and I registered her. And I thought that's great. She's registered,” Ms Rossiter said.
The next day, she grew concerned that Aoife’s priority status had not been flagged during her registration.
“Initially, we were told that our GP could login this morning and update Aoife’s file on the HSE website but they can't, GPs can't access the portal. I can't go back and update her file. It's closed. It's locked online,” she said.
“You're being told ‘we can flag it, we can update the file,’ and then the next time you speak to somebody different saying, ‘no, we can't do that, you’ll have to go to your GP,’ and then the GP can't help you. So you're going round in circles.
“At the moment, I have no solution. I can't update her record, the HSE can't update it. My GP can't help me. I have no way to flag that you know, my child is in need of this vaccine... so we're completely stuck.”
Not in remit
Also concerned, Ms Shine has contacted the HSE but was told “it will be three weeks until we get an appointment” for her daughter Éabha and her siblings.
“I've been on to my GP, I’ve been on to my daughter's paediatrician. They don't know anything about it, it's not within their remit,” she said.
“[Éabha] has severe and profound learning needs and intellectual disability. I also have three other kids who are of primary school age, and so I registered them all at the same time because we were told to do that.
“I did it on the 27th of December because I was waiting for that portal to open. So as soon as it was open, I registered them. At that point for me, there was no way to indicate that they were vulnerable. And so I just assumed that everyone who registered on that date was... naively.
“Then I rang on the 29th, realising that maybe she wasn't registered as vulnerable and amended her details because at that stage, you could indicate that they were vulnerable... I've checked a few times and they do have those details. I've been on to the HSE non-stop since then. But we haven't received an appointment.”
The HSE did not address a query from BreakingNews.ie concerning any potential error in recording the risk or priority status of some children aged 5-11 when registering for a Covid vaccine.
However, it said it has administered just over 4,000 vaccine doses up to Tuesday to children identified as a priority by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) and said vaccination of this cohort will continue at dedicated clinics this week.
It added that dedicated child-friendly clinics will be in operation for the rest of the 5-11 year old cohort, for whom vaccination registration opened on Monday, this coming weekend.
“Parents have been waiting and waiting for this vaccine like me. We are in contact on WhatsApp and... it's such a disappointment when we've been waiting two years and like me, they've been very careful over Christmas waiting for this and now, like me, they have no idea when it's going to happen,” Ms Rossiter said.