DeSantis, White House clash over Florida supply of COVID vaccine for kids

The White House said the governor “reversed course” on vaccines for young children. DeSantis’ office denies it.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ JOE RAEDLE | TNS ]
Published June 17, 2022|Updated June 17, 2022

WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is now allowing healthcare providers — including pediatricians and children’s hospitals — to order COVID-19 vaccines from a federal program for children between six months and 5 years old, a reversal from earlier this week when providers were prevented from preordering doses, White House officials told McClatchy.

The decision will expand access to pediatric coronavirus vaccines for parents across the state, which, under DeSantis’ previous position, would have been limited to seeking vaccines at a select number of community health centers and facilities participating in a federal retail pharmacy program.

The DeSantis administration is pushing back aggressively against the notion that its position has changed, with a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Health telling McClatchy that it never planned on preventing private healthcare providers from ordering doses.

But those private providers were unable to place orders before a Tuesday deadline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to obtain initial doses over the first two weeks of availability. It could take up to two weeks for deliveries to arrive based on orders placed Friday.

“We are encouraged that after repeated failures by Governor DeSantis to order COVID-19 vaccines even after every other state had ordered, the State of Florida is now permitting healthcare providers to order COVID-19 vaccines for our youngest children,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told McClatchy. “We believe it is critical to allow parents everywhere to have the choice to get their kids vaccinated and have a conversation with their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

“Even though Governor DeSantis reversed course and is now ordering vaccines, we will pull every lever to get pediatricians across Florida vaccines as quickly as possible,” Jean-Pierre said. “This is an encouraging first step, and we urge the state to order vaccines for its state and local health departments, so that all Florida parents have the opportunity to get their children vaccinated.”

DeSantis office says no reversal

Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, said that “the fact that the White House is trying to say that we somehow changed our approach is a complete lie.”

“Preorder means before the emergency use authorization. The emergency use authorization is now out, so providers are allowed to order on their own,” he said. “We didn’t preorder because we did not want to be the storage unit for the CDC.”

The governor’s office said in a statement that “it is patently false that Florida has ‘reversed course’ or changed its position in any way with regards to the COVID vaccine for children under 5.”

“We have never held the position that the state would prohibit healthcare providers from ordering the vaccine,” said Bryan Griffin, a deputy press secretary for the governor. “We have always maintained the position that the State of Florida has chosen not to be involved in the preordering or distribution of the vaccine for children under 5. The State of Florida does not recommend the vaccine be administered to healthy children. Unfortunately, many media outlets have assumed that government is the only means by which something happens in today’s society, and have convoluted a lack of state action or support with a ban or prohibition.”

The Biden administration set up preorders for pediatric vaccine doses to ensure timely delivery once the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the shots, which came on Friday. No doses were delivered before the FDA decision.

A delay in access to vaccine doses

As a result of the delay, Florida’s pediatricians’ offices and children’s hospitals — the preferred venue for pediatric care for millions of parents — will not have access to doses when the rest of the country does.

Officials from the White House and Department of Health and Human Services told McClatchy that Florida officials who were repeatedly pressed on whether they would be placing orders gave no indication, as of Thursday, that they would open up access to local healthcare providers.

Florida officials will still have to use resources to help facilitate orders for health providers across the state, U.S. officials said.

“Across the country, state health departments work with providers across the state to collect their orders. This is across our vaccination programs, of all ages, across those authorized products,” said Sonya Bernstein, a senior policy adviser on COVID-19 for the White House.

Over the course of the week, officials in DeSantis’ administration told reporters that COVID-19 posed “practically zero risk” to children and, contradicting federal public health agencies, claimed the risks of vaccinating infants outweighed the benefits.

“We were distributing this when it first came out because a lot of people wanted it and there wasn’t enough supply. Well, there’s a surplus of this. Doctors can get it, hospitals can get it,” DeSantis said. “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.”

In a briefing with reporters on Friday afternoon, Dr. Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said DeSantis’ initial stance was “unconscionable” and that developments over the last 24 hours marked an “important change.”

“On whether this is a reversal or not, I will say the following: Yesterday, pediatricians in every state in the country could order vaccines, or had the opportunity to order vaccines for their offices, except for pediatricians of the state of Florida. As of today, pediatricians now have that choice,” Jha said. “Something clearly changed between yesterday and today in the state of Florida.

“The state of Florida intentionally missed multiple deadlines to order vaccines to protect its youngest kids,” Jha added. “Elected officials deliberately chose to delay taking action to deny Florida parents the choice of whether to vaccinate their children or not.”

All other states preordered vaccines

McClatchy first reported on Wednesday that Florida was the only U.S. state that had not ordered COVID-19 vaccines for children under 5, missing a deadline for preorders set by the federal government. Public health officials and the Biden administration warn that parents across the state will struggle to find vaccines for their kids as a result.

The news sparked a public outcry from doctors in the state. On Friday morning, a congressional panel established to oversee the federal coronavirus response demanded an explanation from the governor unless he reversed course.

The FDA granted emergency use authorization for the vaccines on Friday morning, describing its review process as long and vigorous.

“The agency determined that the known and potential benefits of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the known and potential risks in the pediatric populations authorized for use for each vaccine,” the FDA said in a statement.

An independent panel advising the CDC is expected to recommend use of the vaccines over the weekend. The CDC director will likely sign off on those recommendations by Sunday. Shots could begin as early as Monday across the country.

Dr. Lisa Gwynn, the president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she’s “thrilled” with the state’s reversal. The chapter has 3,000 members.

“We’re happy to hear that the state has agreed that this is important,” said Gwynn, who is also an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“We just want to thank everyone that spoke out and advocated for children,” she added. “We all banded together and we’re glad to see the outcome.”

By Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau. Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen and Miami Herald Staff Writer Michelle Marchante contributed to this report.