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Florida doctors say they can now order pediatric vaccines

White House and DeSantis dispute whether governor reversed himself under pressure

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has ridden a wave of anger against pandemic restrictions recommended by federal health officials. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has agreed to allow state pediatricians and health-care providers to order newly authorized vaccines for children under 5 after the state this week became the only one in the nation to not preorder the shots, White House officials said Friday.

DeSantis, however, angrily rejected the White House’s characterization that he had reversed himself, saying in a statement that “we have never held the position that the state would prohibit health care providers from ordering the vaccine. 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.”

Florida pediatricians cheered the news that they would be able to order the shots, although they, too, seemed bewildered about how and why that had come to pass. State health officials are now accepting the orders from providers, which they were not doing before Friday, said Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Our main concern now is we aren’t sure when the vaccine will be delivered since we missed the ordering deadline.” she said, noting that parents eager to immunize their children have been frantically calling doctors’ offices.

The debate over his policies regarding vaccines for the youngest Americans is the latest controversy engulfing DeSantis and his response to the coronavirus amid projections of an omicron-fueled surge in Florida this summer that is already filling the state’s hospitals and as he seeks reelection to a second term and positions himself as a 2024 Republican presidential front-runner eager to wrest the populist mantle from former president Donald Trump.

Riding a wave of predominantly partisan anger against pandemic restrictions, DeSantis has turned the coronavirus into a culture-war issue that critics say he is using for political advantage. As temperatures rise and the state’s infection rates continue to climb — Florida is among the top five states for new coronavirus infections, according to a Washington Post analysis — his embrace of positions that run counter to federal health guidance on vaccines, masks and other tools is raising concern among doctors and others.

“I don’t see the benefit of this outside of a bit of political theater for the governor,” said Holly Bullard, a Sarasota mother eager to vaccinate her 2-year-old. “Me and a lot of other parents I know have just been counting the days until we could get our kiddos the vaccine. We talk about parents’ rights, but I have a right for my pediatrician to have medicine that will help my child. I don’t want to have to go to the back of the local store with my son when we have a doctor he knows and trusts.”

The state’s position on children’s vaccines builds on the views of the governor’s top health appointee, Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who has repeatedly questioned the safety and efficacy of the shots despite robust evidence that they protect against severe illness and death. This year, Ladapo became the first state health official to recommend against coronavirus vaccinations for healthy children because he argues they are at lower risk of severe illness from covid — a position slammed by pediatricians and top infectious-disease experts who advise the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida is still refusing to offer the pediatric vaccines through state and local health departments, which will make it more difficult to vaccinate children who do not have a regular provider. “This will specifically leave the most vulnerable, underserved children of Florida behind,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha said on a call with reporters Friday, calling the decision “regrettable.”

DeSantis and Ladapo have said the risks of administering coronavirus vaccines to healthy children may outweigh the benefits, because children are not at high-risk of developing severe disease from the virus. Medical authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, and top federal health officials disagree, saying that while children are less likely than older adults to be hospitalized or die, they are still vulnerable.

More than 31,000 children have been hospitalized with covid in Florida since the pandemic began, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. So far in 2022, more than 14,000 have been admitted.

Studies also show that unvaccinated children are more vulnerable to severe disease: One CDC study found that hospitalizations of children aged 5 to 11 during the omicron period were twice as high for those who were unvaccinated compared with children who got the shots. Thirty percent of hospitalized children had no underlying medical conditions, the study found.

Nationally, the covid death toll of those 18 or younger is 1,257, according to the CDC. In Florida, 45 children age 15 and younger have died of covid as of June 9, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Conservative creds

By his own admission, DeSantis’s opposition to federal health guidance has paid him political dividends as he burnishes his conservative creds. “Before covid, I was known, but I was not known the way I’ve become since covid and all the other issues that we’ve taken on,” he said last month on a conservative podcast called “The Truth with Lisa Boothe.”

DeSantis boasts that under his “freedom first” leadership, Florida’s economy is thriving, in part because he has pushed and signed legislation that outlaws mask and vaccine mandates. For a time, the state withheld funding from school districts that defied his ban on mask mandates.

He also remains popular in Florida, with a 58 percent approval rating and 37 percent disapproval, according to a University of North Florida poll from February.

The governor also insists the coronavirus is in the rearview mirror and often suggests Florida is doing better economically than New York, which like most of the rest of the country had shuttered schools and nonessential businesses in the first year of the pandemic but reopened more than a year ago.

But Florida residents have fared far worse than New Yorkers since vaccinations became widely available in spring 2021. At the outset of the pandemic, Florida had a lower age-adjusted death rate than New York, which was consumed by infections that first spring.

Over the last 11 months, Florida’s death rate is about twice that of New York, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Between July 2021 and this April, Florida’s age-adjusted death rate was 110 per 100,000 residents, compared with 58 per 100,000 for New York, a Post analysis showed.

DeSantis’s evolution from vaccine booster to apparent skeptic was gradual. After heavily promoting vaccinations for seniors in early 2021, he spent the last year questioning the efficacy of booster shots, calling them a “private matter” and refusing to disclose whether he had received one. He had also promoted earlier antiviral treatments called monoclonal antibodies against covid. Today, though, Florida ranks among the worst states for availability of the highly effective covid antiviral Paxlovid.

Florida Democrats also point to his appointment in September of Ladapo, a Harvard-educated doctor who has espoused controversial views about masks and vaccines. Ladapo signed the Great Barrington Declaration in the pandemic’s earliest days, encouraging state governments to let the coronavirus spread unchecked among healthy people to encourage herd immunity before vaccines and effective treatments were available.

“The governor put this person, who most people would consider a kook, in the highest position for public health in Florida,” said state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Democrat from South Florida who served on the House Public Health subcommittee.

While DeSantis says his covid policies have saved the state’s economy, Skidmore questioned why promoting and giving residents easy access to tools to protect themselves from the coronavirus, such as vaccines, boosters and antivirals — would hurt the economy.

“We can’t we have both?” she asked. “Why couldn’t we have opened everything up, and protected our economy and allowed people to protect themselves and their families without ridiculing them and making them feel like it’s an attack on freedom?”

Jacqueline Dupree and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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