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What is Florida’s plan for coronavirus vaccine boosters?

So far, the state is lagging behind others in its efforts to provide extra doses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has not confirmed whether he will get a booster shot, and Florida's new surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo has not released his vaccination status.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has not confirmed whether he will get a booster shot, and Florida's new surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo has not released his vaccination status.
Published Oct. 28, 2021|Updated Oct. 28, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis got the single-dose coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson in April.

Nearly seven months later, the protection offered by that single dose is fading. DeSantis is one of more than 15 million Americans who should get a booster shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions more Floridians who received other vaccines are eligible to get a booster because they are elderly or immunocompromised.

But DeSantis isn’t saying whether he will get an extra dose as is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Monday, the governor said at a news conference he would “take a look” at the federal government’s guidance. Although other public officials, such as President Joe Biden, have publicly gotten booster shots, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in an email last week she was “unable to share details about Gov. DeSantis’ private medical decisions.”

“People should consult with a trusted health care provider if they have questions about whether a booster shot is right for them. Every individual is different,” Pushaw said. “It would be irresponsible for a politician to make that decision for them.”

It’s not clear what extra effort — if any — the state is making to raise awareness about the need for boosters. As of Wednesday, Florida had given about 8 percent of its vaccinated population a booster shot, a figure that ranked 21st in the country, according to CDC data. About 19 percent of its vaccinated 65 and older population had gotten an extra dose, which was 33rd best out of the 50 states.

Pushaw noted that the shots are available at any pharmacy that offers the coronavirus vaccine, or at the Florida Department of Health’s mobile vaccine clinics. The health department updates Floridians on the location of those clinics via Twitter.

Other states are making efforts Florida is not. Colorado has begun to text more than 1 million of its residents about their eligibility for a booster shot. That state’s COVID-19 website also has an information section for people curious about whether they should get a booster. Colorado has given an extra shot to a higher percentage of its vaccinated 65 and older population than any other state, according to CDC data.

Florida’s state coronavirus website, meanwhile, had no information about booster shots as of Wednesday. The most recent item on the state’s list of “latest vaccine updates” had to do with a monoclonal antibody treatment, not a vaccine.

A screengrab of accessed Wednesday, Oct. 27.
A screengrab of accessed Wednesday, Oct. 27. [ Florida Department of Health ]

Some county-level Department of Health websites did offer information about boosters.

“I do feel that the state Department of Health should have more information on its website,” said Claudia Parvanta, a professor at the University of South Florida’s college of public health who specializes in health communication and social marketing.

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Parvanta said Florida could look to the example of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, which has an interactive guide to help curious residents figure out whether they should get an extra dose. A Department of Health spokesperson did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

However, it’s clear that communication is not everything. Despite North Carolina’s more elaborate website, that state ranks 46th in terms of the percentage of vaccinated residents who have gotten a booster. The states that have had the most success giving out boosters — Alaska, Vermont and Montana — have seen case spikes in recent weeks. Florida vaccinated more residents when it was in the middle of its summer surge as well. Now that cases are down, vaccination has dropped as a priority for many.

Still, a robust booster program could be paramount in Florida, home to some 4.5 million seniors. Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has talked extensively about the need to protect that population, which is statistically the most vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus.

“If you’re an older, sicker person and you don’t get your booster, you’re increasing your chances of a bad outcome,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Moore noted that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines still offer strong protection to those who are younger and have strong immune systems. Unvaccinated individuals are at the greatest risk for a bad virus outcome, he said. But every immune system that’s exposed to infection is potential fuel for another surge.

DeSantis hasn’t held any press events about vaccine boosters since the Centers for Disease Control recommended boosters for some seniors last month. Instead, DeSantis has campaigned against workplace vaccine mandates. He’s toured the state with his new surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who has questioned the vaccine’s ability to protect workers from contracting the disease. Ladapo also won’t say whether he’s vaccinated.

Rather than focusing on vaccination rates in a state that ranks 19th in shots distributed per capita, DeSantis has touted the state’s dropping case and hospitalization rates in recent weeks.

Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida’s state director, said he has seen some confusion among the state’s older residents about the need for a vaccine. He said he’d like the state to send a strong message that boosters are widely available to the elderly and vulnerable — even though the state’s COVID-19 situation has undeniably improved.

“You can’t wait until the virus is knocking on the door to get a booster,” Johnson said. “You need to stay on top of this.”

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