In a briefing to a congressional subcommittee Tuesday, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo confirmed that the state decision to block county health departments from obtaining the newly FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines for young children may prevent an estimated 30,000 disadvantaged kids from accessing the vaccines.
Florida’s surgeon general, whose guidance on COVID-19 vaccines and face masks has frequently conflicted with the recommendations of public health agencies and medical academies, presented a defiant defense of his controversial advice while testifying before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
Ladapo doubled down on the Florida Department of Health’s official guidance that healthy children younger than 16 are “at little to no risk of severe illness complications from COVID-19” — contrary to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“In Florida, we don’t recommend” coronavirus vaccines for children, Ladapo told the subcommittee, according to a statement from the subcommittee.
Ladapo repeated his claim that adolescents are at “low risk” from the coronavirus, and he testified that there is “little data” on whether children benefit from the COVID-19 vaccines, the subcommittee said.
Rep. Clyburn urges DeSantis to change his position
The subcommittee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said Florida’s decision not to pre-order the new vaccines by the June 14 deadline made it harder for parents to get their children vaccinated.
“I urge the governor to abandon this dangerous, anti-scientific approach, and I strongly encourage all parents of young children to provide them with the lifesaving protection of coronavirus vaccines as soon as possible,” Clyburn said in the subcommittee statement.
Ladapo did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday until the end of the day, when he tweeted a link to a statement and wrote: “The blatantly false statements perpetuated by the @COVIDOversight’s press release distract from legitimate public health efforts. Using our good-faith meeting as a launching pad for political attacks shows why people trust Florida — and not the federal government.”
His statement repeated many of the same points he made to the committee and his position that “providers were not restricted from ordering” vaccines. The statement does not address the fact that the state has blocked county health departments from ordering the vaccines for children who rely on them for primary care.
As of last week, Florida hospitals, community health centers and other medical providers have ordered 20,000 doses of the vaccines for children younger than 5. Pediatricians and family physicians say they have been able to order the shots and receive them as quickly as two days later.
But the governor’s refusal to allow county health departments to provide the vaccines has blocked an important supply source for those family physicians who relied on the state-run agencies to provide them with fewer doses to meet the low demand.
Some pediatricians said they were forced to throw away doses, and other family physicians said they decided not to order the shots rather than waste them.
On Tuesday, while visiting Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami, a top health official in the Biden administration pledged that the federal government would help supply those Florida doctors who need to access small quantities of the shots but cannot get them through the health department.
Ladapo says DeSantis was part of the decision
Ladapo told the subcommittee that the decision not to pre-order the shots was made “together” with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida’s surgeon general testified before the panel after Clyburn’s request in a letter to DeSantis dated June 17, three days after the deadline to pre-order the vaccines.
Clyburn told DeSantis he wanted an explanation as to why Florida was the only state that did not pre-order the vaccines, which would have allowed the federal government to ship them to states immediately once the shots were authorized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration on June 17.
About 33,000 kids can’t get vaccine at county health departments
According to the subcommittee, Ladapo confirmed that because the state has barred county health departments in Florida from ordering or administering coronavirus vaccines to young children, approximately 33,000 children under age 5 who receive primary care at county health departments cannot obtain the vaccine at their normal place of care. Ladapo told the committee that he discussed that decision with DeSantis.
“We don’t believe it should be offered at all, and we’ve communicated that to Floridians,” Ladapo was quoted as saying. However, he added that the state has done “some research” into how to connect parents who are interested in vaccinating their children with federally qualified health centers and other providers that are offering vaccinations.
In his statement Wednesday, Clyburn called the vaccines “extremely safe and highly effective at reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death.” He rebuked the governor and urged him to reverse his approach to dismissing the value of the vaccine for young children.
“The steps Governor DeSantis has taken to impede access to lifesaving coronavirus vaccines for Florida’s young children have made it harder for parents across the state to get their children vaccinated, and his promotion of anti-vaccine misinformation is making it harder for parents to make fully informed decisions on how best to protect children’s health,’’ Clyburn said.
According to the subcommittee, Ladapo also confirmed that the health department decided not to pre-order the new vaccines by the deadline, explaining that the state found the pre-ordering system “inefficient” and “unnecessary” and concluded that there was “very little demand.”
The subcommittee said Ladapo confirmed that Florida did not allow pediatricians and other healthcare providers to place orders for vaccines for young children through FloridaSHOTS, the state’s vaccine ordering system, until after the FDA granted emergency use authorization on June 17.
Ladapo also denied press reports that Florida reversed its decision and allowed providers to order vaccines only after a public outcry, the subcommittee statement said.
When asked whether the risks to children from COVID-19 are lower than the risks from the vaccines, the committee statement said Ladapo replied that it was “a perverse question” and that the proper comparison was the risk of vaccinating vs. the risk of not vaccinating.
However, Clyburn said that Ladapo’s position is “contrary to consensus scientific views confirmed by the CDC, FDA, and top scientists and public health experts throughout the country” and implies that the risks from infection should not be considered when evaluating the risks from vaccines.
“Now that they have been authorized for young children, all parents must be given accurate information on the vaccines’ benefits and must have the freedom to vaccinate their children without needless barriers put in place by politicians like Governor DeSantis,’’ Clyburn said. “I urge the governor to abandon this dangerous, anti-scientific approach, and I strongly encourage all parents of young children to provide them with the lifesaving protection of coronavirus vaccines as soon as possible.”
McClatchy DC Washington bureau reporter Michael Wilner contributed to this report.