TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Health is recommending against giving coronavirus vaccines to healthy children.
Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo made the pronouncement at a Monday roundtable discussion on coronavirus mitigations policies moderated by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ladapo, who leads Florida’s Department of Health, said his department’s recommendation would be the first of its kind in the country.
The announcement came after a 90-minute discussion among 10 doctors and researchers who rejected the benefits of various coronavirus mitigation measures such as vaccine mandates, mask requirements and business and school closures, saying instead those policies only caused harm.
“I think what Florida’s guidance reflects is the latest research,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference at Plant City later in the day. He said healthy kids are at low risk for the virus and that he’s seen studies showing there’s “very little benefit” for them.
The Department of Health released a copy of the written recommendation Tuesday. It said that “healthy children aged 5 to 17 may not benefit from receiving the currently available COVID-19 vaccine,” and that “there are certain risks to consider that may outweigh benefits among healthy children.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages five and older. That agency recommends vaccinating children. Vaccines for children younger than 5 have not yet been approved.
Although older people are far more likely to die from the virus than children, the CDC website notes COVID-19 is one of the top 10 causes of death for children aged 5 to 11.
More than 804,000 Florida children younger than 16 have contracted the coronavirus, according to Florida Department of Health data. Forty-two of those children died. About 373,000 Florida children ages five to 11 have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. That’s about 22 percent of the state’s five to 11 population.
Monday’s panel event was billed as “The Curtain Close on COVID Theater,” and was held in a professionally lit studio in West Palm Beach with 10 guest speakers, including doctors and researchers from around the country. Among them were three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, a highly controversial document that recommended against lockdowns because of what they said were “devastating” public health consequences.
On a floor-to-ceiling screen behind the panelists were square tiles with video feeds of attendees, many of whom were staffers at various government agencies in the DeSantis administration, including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Juvenile Justice and others.
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Panelists touched on several themes championed by DeSantis, including what speakers called the “censorship” of doctors who dissent from the mainstream coronavirus guidance. Some accused the CDC and other government agencies of becoming politicized or of working with media outlets to buy “surreptitious advertising” promoting vaccines.
Robert Malone, a vaccine researcher who has become a vocal proponent of the anti-vaccine movement during the pandemic, said the “deep state” has kept doctors from using “repurposed drugs” like hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Numerous studies have found that drug has no clinical benefit in fighting the virus.
Multiple panelists said that a large portion of school children have already been infected with COVID-19, and said that natural immunity is one strong reason for kids not to need vaccines.
One panelist, a California doctor named Tracy Beth Høeg, talked about a study that she authored on the risks of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, after some people, especially boys, received coronavirus vaccines.
“Even for boys who are previously healthy who haven’t been previously infected, we didn’t find that there was a benefit (to getting vaccinated), there was actually overall risk of giving them the second dose,” she said.
Høeg’s study has not been peer-reviewed, and PolitiFact reported that flawed data and potential conflicts of interest may have impacted the researchers’ findings.
Notably, hospitalization rates were calculated from January to July 2021, prior to the delta and omicron waves in much of the country. The delta and omicron variants pose more risk to children than previous variants.
Another speaker, Joseph Fraiman, an emergency room doctor in Louisiana, said the “severe” side-effects of the vaccines compared to the mild symptoms caused by the coronavirus in children means there’s no “clear benefit.”
“If you have a healthy child, the chances of that child dying are incredibly low, essentially close to zero if not actually zero,” he said. Fraiman then bashed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for not doing enough research on the coronavirus vaccine, saying it’s left a vacuum of information.
“We have no idea if vaccines reduce transmission in kids or in adults,” he said.
The White House responded to Ladapo’s announcement during a media briefing later Monday afternoon.
“It’s deeply disturbing that there are politicians peddling conspiracy theories out there and casting doubt on vaccinations when it is our best tool against the virus and the best tool to prevent even teenagers from being hospitalized,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Sonja Rasmussen, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the University of Florida, said in an interview that she did not support the state’s recommendation. She noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends COVID-19 vaccines for eligible children and adolescents 5 years of age or older.
“Children are at lower risk than adults but they’re certainly not at no risk,” Rasmussen said. “We have a safe and effective vaccine with a very low risk of adverse outcomes.”
Rasmussen noted that children have not been immune to hospitalization from COVID-19, and many have experienced so-called “long COVID.” The CDC has found that unvaccinated 12-to-17-year-olds are more than twice as likely to have been hospitalized from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.
And a 2020 survey from the United Kingdom Office of National Statistics estimated more than 1 in 10 children experience COVID symptoms 5 weeks after infection.
Rasmussen disputed the panelists’ contentions related to the safety of the vaccines. For example, she pointed to a December study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed that the risk of myocarditis in children is relatively low — 70 cases per million vaccine doses in boys aged 12 to 15. Those cases of myocarditis were largely milder than instances of that heart condition brought on by viruses like COVID-19, the study noted.
She noted that much about the virus remains uncertain. For example, it’s unclear how long the vaccines offer peak protection. Kids may need boosters at some point, Rasmussen said.
But Rasmussen said the vaccines are safe and effective. If parents have questions, they should consult their family doctor, she said.
Ladapo and the other panelists on Monday derided the experts and government officials that have pushed for vaccine mandates and closures, even in the early days of the pandemic.
“I still remember very clearly when people were telling us, including a lot of people with a lot of degrees (who) were telling us, ‘15 days to stop the spread,’ ” Ladapo said, referencing the Trump administration’s campaign in March 2020 encouraging people who were medically vulnerable or who felt sick to stay home to combat the coronavirus. “These people had no idea what they were talking about.”
He said now, people in power “want us to forget that their choices that they made for everyone were the wrong choices that basically led to no appreciable benefit.”
Times staff writers Ian Hodgson and Romy Ellenbogen, as well as Miami Herald Washington reporter Bryan Lowry, contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday, March 8, after the Florida Department of Health released the written recommendation.