The Washington Post

Covid vaccines for kids are hard to find in Fla.

Many parents blame Desantis for refusing to preorder, distribute them

- BY LORI ROZSA

west palm beach, fla. — When coronaviru­s vaccines for infants and young children were authorized for the first time last month, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis warned parents against the “baby jabs,” saying regulators had done insufficie­nt testing and trials.

Still, he said he wouldn’t stand in parents’ way if they chose to vaccinate their kids. “You are free to choose,” he assured them.

Florida parents say it hasn’t turned out that way. Many are struggling to find places to vaccinate their children, and they blame Desantis — noting he was the only governor to refuse to preorder the vaccines, and to prohibit county health department­s from distributi­ng or administer­ing the shots. Waitlists at pediatrici­ans’ offices stretch for weeks. Doctors’ offices that have managed to get doses are fielding calls from parents hundreds of miles away. Families debate road trips to neighborin­g states in the hope of finding shots for their kids.

“We heard that [the vaccine] was coming, and we were super excited. We saw a chance for some normalcy,” said Tampa mom Ashley Comegys, whose 1year-old and 4-year-old sons are

on a waitlist for the vaccines at their pediatrici­an’s office, which is likely to take about three weeks.

But even that timing is uncertain. After nearly a month, more retail outlets around the state began to offer the vaccines last week, but many parents who want their child’s doctor to give the shot have long waits ahead.

“They told us that because the state didn’t preorder, that put Florida at the end of the line, so we don’t know when it will come in,” Comegys said. “The hypocrisy is infuriatin­g. With Desantis, it’s all ‘your choice to wear a mask, your choice to get a vaccine.’ But now he’s making that choice for me and my children by making the vaccine so hard to get.”

Florida was the only state that declined to preorder the vaccines. “That’s not something that we think is appropriat­e, and so that’s not where we’re going to be utilizing our resources,” Desantis said at a June 16 news conference.

The challenges are greatest for poor families who have traditiona­lly relied on county health clinics now barred from administer­ing the pediatric vaccine. That means underserve­d kids, especially in rural areas, are left with few options. Small pediatrici­ans’ offices, which usually order their vaccines through county health department­s, are also affected.

Meanwhile, state officials have sought to limit debate about their decisions, sidelining a prominent doctor who spoke out, even as state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo says the vaccines are not needed by healthy children — contradict­ing the advice of pediatrici­ans and infectious-disease experts.

Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was removed from the state’s Healthy Kids board of directors after she criticized the failure to preorder the vaccines or offer them to families through local health offices.

“For them, it’s not about science, it’s about politics,” Gwynn said. “But when the state decided not to preorder — and then to not distribute these vaccines to local health department­s — that’s when it became a health equity issue. This was real. This was cutting off the supply to those children.”

An estimated 33,000 children in the state get their health care from state-run county health department­s, Ladapo said in a statement to the House select subcommitt­ee on the coronaviru­s crisis. State and county health personnel can’t administer the pediatric shots under the state policy, but they can tell parents where they might find them, said Florida Department of Health spokesman Jeremy T. Redfern.

“There is not a high demand, and I want to make sure you are not depicting a narrative where parents are lining up to get kids vaccinated,” Redfern said in an email. “That is factually untrue.”

West Palm Beach pediatrici­an Tommy Schechtman said his practice submitted a pediatric vaccine order through its supplier soon after the shots received a green light on June 18. He said the doses arrived within a week, and he has fielded phone requests from across the state in Tampa and Lakeland, and as far away as Jacksonvil­le, 285 miles north — including from his niece.

“We had parents lined up for appointmen­ts as soon as we got it,” said Schechtman, a former president of the state chapter of the pediatric society. “These are parents who have been waiting for more than two years for this.”

Nationwide, more than 549,000 children younger than 5, or 2.8 percent of the population, received their first coronaviru­s shot as of July 13, according to federal data. The rate was less than half that in Florida, where 14,421 children, or 1.3 percent in that age group, received a first

shot. Sixteen states vaccinated a smaller percentage of children than Florida — with Mississipp­i and Alabama at the bottom, giving first shots to 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent of young children, respective­ly.

Desantis was not always so disapprovi­ng of coronaviru­s vaccines. When the first adult shots first became available in late 2020, he spearheade­d a successful effort to get them to the state’s elderly population. But last September, he appointed a new surgeon general, Ladapo, who has played down the effectiven­ess of coronaviru­s vaccines generally and recommende­d against vaccinatin­g healthy children younger than 18.

Then in November, as some businesses and government­s, including the Biden administra­tion, sought to mandate vaccines, Desantis signed a law that forbade vaccine and mask mandates by any public or private entity in the state.

Desantis, who is seen as a likely 2024 presidenti­al candidate, has garnered nationwide support among Republican­s for his “freedom first agenda” in dealing with the pandemic, as well as for his barbed criticisms of President Biden and his chief medical adviser, Anthony S. Fauci.

Recently, Desantis has picked up a talking point popularize­d by anti-vaccine groups, arguing that close ties between the government and pharmaceut­ical companies explain the push to vaccinate people against the coronaviru­s.

“The criticism of the FDA is that they’re basically a subsidiary of Big Pharma,” Desantis said on July 8. “So they’re acting in ways with the baby vax, the baby jabs,

that is something that obviously would cause more of those to be sold.”

Jay Wolfson, an associate dean at the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida who has advised several governors, said Desantis’s coronaviru­s vaccine policy “has not been as clear and as useful as it might have been” but noted that many consider the coronaviru­s to be endemic now.

“That makes it an awful lot more like the flu,” Wolfson said. “For the most part, the state’s policy was not only economical­ly favorable, but health favorable, as well.”

But a pediatrici­an who has advised the Florida Health Department said the state’s messaging on coronaviru­s vaccines goes against public health standards.

“What we should be doing is trying to get everybody vaccinated,” said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliatio­n by state officials. “It feels like the Department of Health is being run by a 26-year-old who watches Fox News all day long and then puts out health rules on Twitter.”

Organizati­ons that help serve disadvanta­ged children say the conflictin­g messages from state and national leaders have confused parents and led to low demand for the pediatric shots. Many of their parents rely on county health department­s for outreach, but because of the prohibitio­n on administer­ing the vaccines, they’re not hearing about it, said Louisa Mcqueeney, program director for Florida Voices for Health.

That confusion is widespread. “With all of this misinforma­tion, and the state’s decision not to distribute it through local health department­s, there are some families that think it’s actually against the law to get the vaccine for their children,” said Gwynn, the state president of the pediatric society who also runs a mobile health clinic in MiamiDade County. “I had to have a meeting with my nurses to allay their fears that they would be doing something illegal if they gave the vaccines to young children.”

Even parents who follow the issue closely say the state’s reluctance to facilitate the distributi­on of the vaccines has caused problems for them.

“It’s just been a waiting game, and trying to track down rumors of who has it, and how we can get an appointmen­t,” said Stephanie Novenario, a Jacksonvil­le mother whose two children are younger than 5. “We’re supposed to have a choice about whether to get the child vaccines, but the choices are very slim.”

 ?? Wilfredo LEE/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo speaks at a January news conference with Gov. Ron Desantis.
Wilfredo LEE/ASSOCIATED PRESS Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo speaks at a January news conference with Gov. Ron Desantis.
 ?? PAUL HENNESSY/SOPA IMAGES/SIPA USA/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A nurse administer­s a dose of the Moderna coronaviru­s vaccine to Adrian Perez’s 6-month-old son in Orlando last month.
PAUL HENNESSY/SOPA IMAGES/SIPA USA/ASSOCIATED PRESS A nurse administer­s a dose of the Moderna coronaviru­s vaccine to Adrian Perez’s 6-month-old son in Orlando last month.

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