COVID-19 vaccines are now available to people as young as 6 months old, but in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has specifically said he does not recommend the vaccine for young children. He has refused to use state resources to provide the vaccines, and a delayed roll-out has led to confusion amongst parents of children younger than 5 years old and a low turnout rate to vaccinate children. The state’s anti-vaccine position for young children has grown so intransigent that last Wednesday, a pediatrician who advocated for vaccine access for young children was removed from her position on the Florida Healthy Kids Board of directors for for making “some very political statements that do not reflect the CFO’s point of view,” as reported by Florida Politics and the Miami Herald. Parents and doctors of color are especially concerned about the state’s lack of trust in the science of vaccines, and they fear communities of color will continue to be the most vulnerable.
“It gives a message to Black and brown people that is not true,” said Washington Clark Hill, a board member of the Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County and a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Center Place Health practicing at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. “They may think, ‘Well, I’m not going to get my kids vaccinated because I saw the governor say we don’t need it.’ And that is so harmful to our community, for sure to their kids, and it will result in some kids getting a disease, and then some instances where they can die.”
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have advocated for pediatric vaccination as a way to greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the Florida Department of Health does not recommend pediatric COVID-19 vaccines for “healthy children.”
“Think about that: ‘Healthy children do not need to be vaccinated.’ That is such a false statement,” said Hill. “All of us have been vaccinated when we were healthy children, and the reason for that was so that we would not have diseases when we were adults.”
While children younger than 5 are less likely to die from COVID-19, they can still spread the virus to vulnerable and immunocompromised people who could be at greater risk of death or serious health complications. These risks intensify for people of color, who are more likely to live in multigenerational households. According to Generations United, an estimated 66.7 million adults, or one in four people in the U.S., live in a multigenerational household. Florida is one of the five states with the highest percentage of multigenerational homes, with such households representing 11.6% of homes. While some live in multigenerational households for cultural reasons, many people have been forced into them because of the rising cost of living across the nation. In a 2016 Pew Research study, Black, Latinx, and Asian families were more likely to live in multigenerational households than white families. For these households, quarantining and self-isolating during a pandemic can be much more challenging. According to a public health study on multigenerational households in New York City, overcrowded homes and multigenerational housing are independent risk factors for COVID-19.
Betty Williams, a mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-month-old who lives in a multigenerational home with her mother-in-law in Miami, made sure to get vaccinated while she was pregnant.
“It was important for the people around me to get vaccinated,” Williams said. “I feel like there’s so much misinformation out there. I was scared [at first], but then nothing happened, and I was fine. Then down the road my older daughter was able to get it.”
Williams said she has not given much thought to whether she will vaccinate her 11-month-old daughter since they all just recently had a mild case of the virus. But other young children have not fared as well after having COVID-19. Sarah Goldberg, a mother of a 2-year-old daughter in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said her daughter, who was previously “robust” and very healthy, had a “terrible” reaction. The virus affected her lungs, and Goldberg had to buy a nebulizer and a spacer with an inhaler for her toddler. She also had a fever for five days. Goldberg has been asking her daughter’s pediatrician about the vaccine since May, but she was told they don’t envision having it in stock any time soon.
“They should have been ready to go with the vaccine because they knew that there was a surge,” Goldberg said. “We were really careful the last two and a half years; we don’t go out a lot. It makes us nervous, and I’m glad that we’ve acted that way for the last two years because she got [COVID] last week, and it went straight down to her lungs, and she’s really suffered.”
Without state resources providing the new vaccines, patients and doctors cannot get them through county health departments for now. Hill said that when the federal government made getting the vaccine easier for Black and brown communities during community events, it helped the community get vaccinated. Now, the community is missing that support.
According to the Department of Health website, the state of Florida shifted the COVID-19 response last year to a locally led effort. While pediatricians are allowed to order the vaccine, the Florida Department of Health will not purchase doses, meaning state and local health departments will not immediately have access to shots.
“This is an anti-vax state, there’s no other way to put it,” Hill said. “That is because of the thoughts and opinions of the governor. And the surgeon general, who I have no problem saying that he is an embarrassment, he toes the line of the governor.”
Parents and community members became concerned on June 16 when news broke that Florida was the only state that had not yet submitted a request with the federal government for the pediatric vaccines. The vaccines became available as early as June 18, but Florida was the only state that did not pre-order, leaving the “cumbersome” ordering process to the individual doctors to request them directly.
“Well, that’s just contrary to what we want,” Hill said. “We want them to use their resources.”
Gustavo Ortega, a special education teacher in Bay Harbor Islands, Democratic candidate for Florida House District 106, and father of two young children, is ready to get his youngest daughter vaccinated as soon as possible. Ortega, his wife, and his 5-year-old son have all been vaccinated, but his youngest daughter who is 2 years old is the last one left. It is a particularly delicate situation for Ortega because his wife is a breast cancer survivor and is now immunocompromised. His wife had COVID-19 and had to be treated with monoclonal antibodies. Ortega said seeing her with COVID-19 reminded him of her suffering after chemotherapy treatments—something he hopes to not have to repeat ever again.
“She was really hurting; it was almost as if she had a round of chemo,” Ortega said. “It’s just very frustrating that our government, the state of Florida, is doing absolutely nothing to help us get the vaccine. As a governor, one of the main priorities is to keep people safe. The fact that we did not pre-order the vaccine like every other state is negligent.”
As of June 23, Ortega called his daughter’s pediatrician and local CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, and no one was able to tell him a timeline of when they would be able to get the vaccine.
The Biden administration said it will supply pediatricians and family physicians in the state with the vaccine as quickly as possible. Vaccines have since begun being administered, but came days after the rest of the nation received theirs. According to Admiral Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of June 17, Florida doctors had ordered 20,000 doses of the vaccine.
Medical providers can order a minimum of 100 vaccines, which come packaged as 10 doses per vial. Each vial only has a few hours before it expires once it is opened. Some pediatricians and medical providers have said they were forced to throw away shots due to a low demand.
A nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in May found that 18% of parents of children younger than 5 years old wanted to get their child vaccinated “right away” once the shots were authorized. But 38% said they would wait and see, while 11% said they would vaccinate their children “only if required.”
Miami Dade County held a pediatric vaccine rollout from June 25-29 at various locations across the county. Pediatric vaccines are available at local Walgreens pharmacies for children 3 and older, and 18 months and older at CVS MinuteClinics across Florida. Publix pharmacies will not vaccinate children younger than 5 years old at this time.