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.
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 pediatrician offices stretch for weeks. Doctor’s 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 1-year-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 this past 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 vaccine 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 got 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 age 5, or 2.8 percent of the population, got 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, got 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 both vaccine or 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 Miami-Dade 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 both younger than 5. “We’re supposed to have a choice about whether to get the child vaccines, but the choices are very slim.”
Dan Keating contributed to this report.