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The FDA approved a coronavirus vaccine. Will Florida step up its game?

There are some indications that the FDA’s decision will help the vaccination effort in Florida.
A nurse fils a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Kalamazoo Expo Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.
A nurse fils a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Kalamazoo Expo Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.
Published Aug. 24

TALLAHASSEE — As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the coronavirus shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for everyone older than 16, President Joe Biden said Monday that anyone worried about the dangers of what they perceived to be an experimental medication could set those fears aside.

“If you’re a business leader, a nonprofit leader, a state or local leader who has been waiting for full (Food and Drug Administration) approval to require vaccinations, I call on you now to do that, require it,” Biden said.

But in Florida, significant barriers remain in the way of mandatory vaccination. Employers can legally mandate shots to employees, but key industry sectors have been hesitant to do so. Health care facilities, where unvaccinated staffers risk exposing vulnerable patients to the virus, are trying to treat the sick while dealing with alarming staffing shortages. And because of a law passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, it’s illegal for schools to mandate the vaccines for students. Businesses can’t require customers to be vaccinated either.

“You may still have groups that are saying, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t make me do something that I don’t want to do,’” said Jay Wolfson, a senior associate dean for health policy and practice at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine.

Wolfson said that cultural and political factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy will remain even after vaccines gain full approval. Polls show conservative Americans are more likely to be skeptical of the shots. According to Florida’s data, which offers only a rough outline of vaccinations by race, just over one million Black Floridians have gotten a shot. That figure comprises less than a third of the state’s Black population.

However, there are some indications that the Food and Drug Administration’s decision will help the vaccination effort in Florida — the 20th most vaccinated U.S. state, per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from June found that three in 10 unvaccinated Americans said they’d be more likely to get a coronavirus vaccine if the agency gave the shot its full approval.

For months, Pfizer’s shots had been approved under the agency’s emergency use authorization. The vaccines manufactured by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are still in the process of full approval. All three shots have proven safe and effective at preventing the coronavirus’ worst effects.

On Monday, Disney reached a deal with the Service Trades Council Union to mandate vaccination for about 43,000 employees by Oct. 22. In a memo to members, union leaders noted that the Pfizer shot had won approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some mandates were in the works before Monday’s approval. Jackson Health System in Miami, home to one of the country’s largest public hospitals, announced it would require staffers to get a vaccine on Aug. 5. Coincidentally, that policy went into effect Monday, and a spokeswoman reported that nearly 80 percent of the system’s 13,000 employees are vaccinated.

The Biden Administration had also already announced it would all but force hundreds of state nursing homes to require vaccination for their staffers. That process is likely to begin in September.

The move was criticized by the Florida Health Care Association, the largest nursing home advocacy group in the state. The group argued in a statement that the federal government was “singling out” nursing homes in a way that would further complicate the already difficult task of recruiting nursing home employees.

For weeks, AARP Florida, has been sounding the alarm on the low vaccination rates among the people who staff Florida’s nursing homes. The state currently sports the lowest vaccination rate among these workers in the country, according to that group.

Jamie Champion Mongiovi, a spokesperson for AARP Florida, wrote in an emailed statement that nursing homes would not be so prone to losing employees to vaccination mandates if the facilities offered better wages and benefits.

“The long-term care industry in Florida should take this opportunity to reevaluate and improve job conditions for its workers,” Mongiovi said.

Kristen Knapp, a spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, argued that nursing homes often can only pay workers so much because of inadequate federal reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s also unclear what effect the Food and Drug Administration’s decision will have on Florida’s schools. The Pfizer-BioNTech shot was only approved for Americans older than 16. Most Florida students still don’t qualify for a shot that’s been fully approved by U.S. regulators.

The country’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, announced earlier this month it would support forcing teachers either to get a coronavirus vaccine or get tested regularly.

The full approval also raises questions about the extent to which coronavirus vaccines will one day be viewed like other mandatory shots for schoolchildren.

Senate Bill 2006, the bill signed by DeSantis banning so-called “vaccine passports”, also bans schools from requiring coronavirus vaccines for students.

When asked whether the Legislature might change this provision in the future, neither Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor nor Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby responded to emailed requests for comment.

Some states have enacted mandatory vaccinations for government workers. But that’s unlikely to happen in Florida. Even Democrats are split on that issue. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, one of the party’s candidates for governor in 2022, said she would not support mandating the vaccines for government employees. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, another candidate in that race, said he would.

Related: Democrats challenging DeSantis in 2022 criticize his pandemic policies. What would they do?

Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, wrote in an email that the Food and Drug Administration’s approval did not change the governor’s thinking on mandatory vaccination.

“Governor DeSantis is not considering enacting any COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” Pushaw wrote.