DeSantis defends state decision not to order COVID vaccines for kids

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo broke with the CDC and has recommended against giving vaccines to healthy children.
Gov. DeSantis' decision makes Florida the only state in the nation that has not placed preorders for the vaccines for young children.
Gov. DeSantis' decision makes Florida the only state in the nation that has not placed preorders for the vaccines for young children. [ MATIAS J. OCNER /MIAMI HERALD | Miami Herald ]
Published June 16, 2022|Updated June 16, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday defended the state’s decision not to preorder COVID-19 pediatric vaccines for children under 5, saying that parents who want the shots can access them without the state’s help.

“Our Department of Health has been very clear: The risks outweigh the benefits and we recommend against,” DeSantis said at a news conference in the Everglades to announce the state’s annual python capture challenge.

“Doctors can get it. Hospitals can get it. But there’s not going to be any state programs that are going to be trying to, you know, get COVID jabs to infants and toddlers and newborns,” he said. “That’s not something that we think is appropriate, and so that’s not where we’re going to be utilizing our resources in that regard.”

Florida is the only state in the nation that has not placed preorders for the vaccines for young children. The decision leaves health care centers and pharmacies to obtain the supply on their own, potentially delaying access to the vaccines in Florida.

Related: Florida only state not to preorder COVID vaccine for young kids

The preordered vaccines, specifically tailored for children ages 6 months to 5 years, will be delivered in two tranches beginning as early as Monday to thousands of pediatricians’ offices, children’s hospitals, pharmacies and health centers across the country.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo broke with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics in March when he recommended against giving vaccines to healthy children.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee met this week to review data and recommended authorizing emergency use of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for children over 6 months old.

The News Service of Florida reported that Ladapo would not support inoculating the state’s youngest children.

“From what I have seen, there is just insufficient data to inform benefits and risk in children. I think that’s very unequivocal,” Ladapo said Tuesday.

A response from the White House

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday the decision from Florida officials will make finding a vaccine harder for parents in the state.

“Some pharmacies and community health centers in the state get access to federal distribution channels, but those options are limited for parents,” Jean-Pierre said.

The press secretary added that the federal government had been talking to states since early June about preordering the vaccines in hopes of shipping them quickly once the they were approved. Because Florida declined, she said pediatricians “will not have immediate ready access to vaccines.”

The White House will continue urging Florida officials to reverse course and order the vaccines, Jean-Pierre said.

Differing points of view

DeSantis said Thursday that there is “practically zero risk” of COVID-19 complications in children and he has called the vaccine clinical trial data “abysmal.”

But Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University, disagrees. She said she considers the vaccine for children “very safe” and the data shows clear benefits.

“People think, ‘Oh, in young children it is a mild illness.’ Well, it is for the majority, but there have been many hospitalizations from COVID-19, including during the omicron surge, for children under the age of 5,” Trepka said.

“Even young children can benefit from the vaccine because it will prevent them from getting a severe illness, against long COVID and a very rare, but extremely serious condition called multi-system inflammatory syndrome.”

Peter Marks, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, told the FDA committee Wednesday that at least 442 children under the age of 5 have died due to COVID-19 through the end of May, exceeding the number of deaths typically seen from flu or other severe respiratory illnesses.

Related: FDA advisers moved COVID-19 shots closer for kids under 5

DeSantis emphasized Thursday that although the state is not going to get involved in preordering the pediatric vaccines, “that’s not the same as banning it. I mean, people can access it if they want to.”

The state’s failure to preorder the vaccines could delay delivery to medical facilities relying on what the state orders from the federal government.

Parents in Florida seeking vaccines for their children will have two options to access the shots. Some community health centers have ordered vaccines directly through the federal government, and federal pharmacy partners will also have supply, although several chains will be prioritizing children ages 3 and up.

In Florida, 11 retail pharmacies are enrolled in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 vaccines, including CVS Health, Walgreens, Publix, Costco and Kroger. Walmart, which owns Sam’s Club and Southeastern Grocers, the parent company of Winn-Dixie, Fresco y Mas, and Harveys Supermarket, are also enrolled.

CVS Health — which owns traditional CVS stores, Navarro Discount Pharmacies and CVS y mas — said it plans to provide the shots to kids as young as 18 months across the country through its 1,100 MinuteClinic locations.

Jeremy Redfern, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, said in a statement “there are currently no orders in the department’s ordering system for the COVID-19 vaccine for this age group.”

He added: “It is also no surprise we chose not to participate in distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when the Department does not recommend it for all children.”

On Tuesday, the FDA advisory committee voted to recommend Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine to children and teens ages 6-17, making both the Pfizer and Moderna shots available to that age group. On Wednesday, the panel endorsed the use of both vaccines for children over 6 months old.

“Given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and likelihood of continued SARS-CoV-2 transmission during the ensuing months, deployment of the vaccine for use among children 6 months through 4 years of age will likely have a beneficial effect on COVID-19 associated morbidity and mortality in this age group,” the FDA wrote in its briefing document.

The FDA emphasized that the rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are higher for children 6 months to 4 years old compared with children and teens ages 5-17.

Redfern has defended the state’s decision to recommend against COVID-19 vaccinations for children, pointing to childhood vaccination guidelines in Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Norway’s guidelines note that healthy children and adolescents are at lower risk of severe illness from COVID and can be vaccinated. Norway, however, recommends a longer interval of eight to 12 weeks between doses, compared with the CDC’s recommendation of three to eight weeks.

The U.K. government website states that “COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and others” and recommends the doses occur 12 weeks apart for children.

Sweden, however, decided against recommending the vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11, Reuters reported in January.//

Trepka of FIU said that Florida is currently experiencing a surge of hospitalizations from COVID-19, primarily among people who are unvaccinated.

She said that access to the vaccine will help children in day care or camp settings who are in contact with a lot of other children and whose risk of being exposed is greater, adding that it will help to relieve the stress on parents who have limited activities for their kids to avoid exposure.

DeSantis, however, pointed to “media hysteria” for causing parental concern over their children getting the virus.

He said that during the FDA hearing this week one physician noted that “parents are really, really frightened, like we know that the risk is low, we’re not sure how this is going to work, but we parents are really frightened about COVID for their kids.”

DeSantis asked: “Why would they be frightened about it? It’s because of media hysteria. It’s because of a lot of misinformation. That’s why they’re scared.”

Miami Herald reporter Devoun Cetoute and McClatchy Washington, D.C. reporters Michael Wilner and Alex Roarty contributed to this report.