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Florida releases guidance discouraging covid vaccine for most children

The state’s position has parents more confused and health experts criticizing its scientific justifications.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo is recommending that parents in the state not have healthy children vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Chris O'meara/AP)
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With release Tuesday of an official state guidance, Florida is now actively discouraging parents from having most children vaccinated against the coronavirus. The move is already sowing more confusion for families, public health experts say,

The guidance came a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gathered a panel of vaccine-skeptical doctors who said many covid-mitigation efforts have done more harm than good to children during the pandemic. “Based on currently available data, the risks of administering COVID-19 vaccination among healthy children may outweigh the benefits,” Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said in a statement. “That is why these decisions should be made on an individual basis, and never mandated.”

There are no vaccine mandates in Florida. DeSantis convened a special legislative session in November to outlaw any such moves by private or public entities and to prohibit mask mandates.

Public health experts say the latest message from Tallahassee, which goes against advice from all national health and medical organizations, could hurt children.

“Misinformation and negative messaging from people in power who are providing individual opinions which are not based on science is detrimental to the health of our children,” said Mobeen Rathore, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist and professor at the University of Florida.

Rathore said parents are likely to be confused by the disconnect between what most doctors and the DeSantis administration recommend.

“Parents should listen first to their pediatrician,” Rathore said. “They have no vested interest in this other than the health of the children.”

DeSantis and Ladapo call vaccine recommendations for healthy children “covid theater,” along with masking and social distancing. “We always sided with the data and rejected the narrative,” the governor said during his Monday roundtable discussion in West Palm Beach.

The state health department’s guidance asserts that in clinical trials, “higher than anticipated serious adverse events occurred among those receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.” But it provides no sources for that statement, instead linking to a page on the Food and Drug Administration website that explains in general terms what a serious adverse event is.

The guidance also links prominently to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the coronavirus vaccine approved for children ages 5 to 11 to be “safe, immunogenic and efficacious.”

That study noted that covid in children is overall milder than in adults but that severe illness and long-term complications can occur. Children, it added, “play an important role in transmission” of the virus. “Therefore, the availability of safe and efficacious vaccines for school-age children is critical,” it concluded.

DeSantis’s office did not respond to a question about the contradictions between those conclusions and the state’s guidance.

Nearly 1,600 children in the United States have died of covid during the pandemic, including 44 in Florida.

“For the state to come out and say healthy children do not need the vaccine, that’s against all medical advice,” said Rupali Limaye, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University who studies health communications. “We should have no child deaths related to covid. That’s not a normal thing. This is a preventable thing. You can get a vaccine for children, and that vaccine is highly effective and safe.”

Tuesday afternoon, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials strongly “reaffirmed its position” that children 5 and older should be vaccinated. Millions of children in this country have received coronavirus vaccine shots since the FDA first approved them for their age groups last year.

“Data show that vaccines are one of the most effective ways to keep people, including children, safe from COVID-19 by preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death,” declared the statement by the organization’s president, Nirav Shah, who is director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Now is the time to help more families and communities protect themselves through vaccination.”

Jacksonville parent Katie Hathaway said she had her two sons vaccinated as soon as they were eligible, but she knows some parents who are still on the fence. The admonition from the governor’s office “is dangerous,” she said.

“I feel like with the governor, it’s just a constant push of politics and that’s just so divisive,” Hathaway said. “It’s not benefiting anyone, especially children whose lives are still at risk from this pandemic.”