ST. PETERSBURG — When Delquanda Turner Smith saw the alert on her phone last week that the COVID-19 vaccine had been approved for children ages 4 and under, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Her two youngest sons — Carlton is 3 and Erik is 4 — both suffer from an immune disorder which prevents their bodies from fighting off even minor illnesses.
“(They) can’t fight off a common cold, how (are they) going to fight off COVID?” she said. “We’ve been waiting for so long — too long — to get our babies vaccinated.”
Eighteen months after the first vaccines were rolled out, shots are finally going into the arms of the nation’s youngest children, an important milestone for parents who have waited months to protect their children from a virus that continues to evolve and spread.
Young children were vaccinated across the country on Tuesday, including in Florida, the only state that did not preorder doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for children as young as 6 months. In the past, the state preordered doses for all other age groups.
Florida’s surgeon general does not recommend the vaccine for healthy children, which state officials cited as their rationale for not preordering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that kids get vaccinated.
The White House warned last week that Florida’s decision could delay delivery to medical providers, who will bear the brunt of vaccinating infants under 18 months. It’s not yet known whether that is the case, but it did leave children’s hospitals and pediatric clinics scrambling to order the vaccines on Friday, the first day the state would take orders.
That left retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, which have their own federal supply line, to bear the brunt of the demand from parents anxious to vaccinate their children.
But there are age limits to who they’ll vaccinate. CVS, which vaccinates kids 18 months and older, started giving shots in Florida on Tuesday. Walgreens, which only gives the jab to kids at least 3 years old, said it won’t start until Saturday. Publix said it will not vaccinate children under 5.
Tampa Bay parents took to Facebook to celebrate getting their kids vaccinated in places like Clearwater, Lutz, Sarasota and Tampa.
Turner Smith was planning to have her children vaccinated at the pediatric clinic at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. But she’ll have to wait a while longer. Hospital officials received 300 Moderna doses Tuesday but won’t be ready to start offering vaccinations until Friday.
“I just wanted to cry,” Smith said. “(The state is) not taking into consideration the vulnerable kids that aren’t healthy.”
Another complication for pediatricians
More than 80 young children are on a waiting list for the newly approved vaccine at Small World Pediatrics in Wesley Chapel.
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It includes parents of children who have pre-existing health conditions and parents who have had COVID-19 and don’t want their children to suffer the same symptoms, said pediatrician Nancy Silva.
Clinic staffers spent much of last week calling the Florida Department of Health to find out how they could order doses, she said. They were finally able to place an order for 200 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday through Florida SHOTS, a state program that supplies medical facilities.
Silva hopes they arrive in the next two weeks. But she fears she may not be able to offer the vaccine going forward.
Florida SHOTS requires a minimum order of 100 doses. That number will likely exceed demand, Silva said, once her clinic clears its waiting list.
In the past, she was able to go to a Department of Health mass storage facility in an unused building at the Museum of Science and Industry on E Fowler Avenue to pick up more manageable quantities of doses.
But the state will no longer store them, said Ryan Terry, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.
That will make it tougher for small independent pediatric clinics to continue to offer the vaccine, leaving parents of children under 18 months with few options.
It’s important that small pediatric clinics are able to offer the vaccine to young children, Silva said, citing the age limits imposed by Walgreens and CVS.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to vaccinate the under 5s for much longer,” she said.
’Normal has looked very different’
The demand for the vaccine may be short lived. Just one in five parents of children under age 5 said they were eager to get their child vaccinated right away, according to an April survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation. About 38 percent of parents said they plan to wait and see how well the vaccine works.
In Florida, just a quarter of Florida children ages 5 to 11 are vaccinated, according to state reports.
But Turner Smith is ready to get her kids vaccinated. While much of the world has moved on from the early socially distanced days of the pandemic, vulnerable children like her two sons were left behind.
“Normal has looked very different for our family,” the mother said. She, her husband and her oldest son are all vaccinated, but that offers little comfort. Vaccinated adults can still get infected with the mutated omicron strains, and symptoms can take days to appear.
“We’re always thinking, ‘What if we brought it home with us?’” Turner Smith said. “We could infect (Erik and Carlton) and not even know it.”
What’s most heartbreaking, she said, is watching her oldest, Derrick, have to interact with his younger siblings from a distance.
“They’ll play ball in the back or talk when Erik is in the pool, but it’s always six feet away or masked up,” she said. “It’s obvious that (Erik) needs that interaction because he loves to talk.”
Turner Smith knows the vaccine isn’t an end-all cure for her two youngest sons: “It’s an extra layer of protection, but we know we’re still going to have to wear masks and be cautious.”
She hopes Erik’s immune system will respond well enough that he can play flag football and soccer in the fall, and even then he’ll likely be the only one on the field wearing a mask. The big day will be Aug. 11, when Erik turns 5.
“In a perfect world,” she said, “he’d be able to hug (Derrick) on his birthday.”
Times staff writer Sam Ogozalek contributed to this report.
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How to get tested
Florida: The Department of Health has a list of test sites.
The nation: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine is being administered at clinics, doctors’ offices, public health offices and retail pharmacies. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More coronavirus coverage
SYMPTOMS: Think you might have COVID-19? Here’s a guide to symptoms and treatments.
CHILDREN: Babies and toddlers can now get vaccinated. Here are the answers to your questions.
WARNING: How the CDC’s COVID-19 warning system fails Tampa Bay and Florida.
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