Florida to recommend that healthy kids not get COVID-19 vaccine, surgeon general says

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Defying guidance from the nation's top infectious disease and pediatric health experts, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo announced Monday that the state will become the first in the nation to recommend that healthy kids not get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Ladapo made the announcement at the end of a roundtable discussion in West Palm Beach that Gov. Ron DeSantis convened to discuss "failures" in the response to COVID-19.

Florida “is going to be the first state to officially recommend against the COVID-19 vaccine for healthy children,” Ladapo said.

The announcement came after multiple health experts picked by DeSantis to participate in the roundtable downplayed the importance of the vaccine for children, with some saying the benefits of vaccination do not outweigh the risks.

Dr. Robert Malone, who has risen to prominence for contradicting the scientific consensus on COVID-19, claimed that "the consensus of over 17,000 physicians and medical scientists are that the risk-benefit ratio for children does not justify vaccination.”

Malone appeared to be referring to a declaration signed by medical professionals as part of the "Global COVID Summit" initiative.

Such advice contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Both recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for all children age 5 or older. Vaccines for younger children have yet to be approved.

"CDC recommends everyone ages 5 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine to help protect against COVID-19," according to the agency's website.

Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor who teaches pediatric medicine and epidemiology at the University of Florida, noted that "although children are at lower risk than adults, they are certainly not at no risk from COVID-19."

While older individuals are significantly more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, the pandemic hasn't completely spared children.

There are 42 children under the age of 16 who died of COVID-19 in Florida, according to state Department of Health statistics. Another 481 individuals ages 16 to 29 have died of COVID-19 in the state.

"COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe with a very low risk of adverse outcomes. The benefits of COVID-19 vaccines greatly outweigh the potential risks," added Rasmussen, before pointing out that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the vaccine for children.

Longtime Tallahassee pediatric cardiologist and children’s advocate Dr. Louis St. Petery called the surgeon general's announcement “totally crazy.”

“Vaccines are the way you control viral illnesses and this pandemic has been one of the worst viral illnesses, certainly in my lifetime … a recommendation that healthy children don't get vaccinated is not based on any scientific knowledge and makes absolutely no sense," St. Petery said. "Hopefully the parents of the state of Florida will ignore it.”

St. Petery noted that vaccines have "totally eliminated" some diseases. They are profoundly beneficial and overwhelmingly safe.

“… I understand the choice issue, but to recommend that no healthy children in this state should be vaccinated is off the wall," St. Petery said. "No vaccine has been tested more than the COVID vaccine and it was done in a much shorter timeframe than any previous vaccine."

The vaccine announcement from Ladapo comes as DeSantis has amplified his efforts to push back against what he calls "COVID theater."

Last week the governor attracted national attention after he was caught on video telling high school students to remove their masks during an event. Critics said he was bullying the children.

The governor's re-election campaign responded with an ad declaring "It’s curtain call for COVID theater." A press release from the governor's office promoting Monday's roundtable included a link to watch the event on Facebook, where it was billed as "The Curtain Close on COVID Theater."

“We’ve seen a lot of politicization of science,” the governor said Monday.

The governor's approach to COVID-19 has many health experts concerned, though. Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, said lower vaccination rates will prolong the pandemic.

Just 22% of Florida children ages 5-11 had been at least partially vaccinated through March 3, health department records show, compared to 60% of adolescents 12-19. Vaccination rates increase with age; 95% of Florida residents 65 and older have received at least one dose.

The youth immunization statistics already were concerningly low before Ladapo’s announcement Monday, Michael said. He advised the state to reconsider its new guidelines.

“Transmission is still persistent in Florida currently — even if at lowered levels — because of the remaining unvaccinated subsections of the population,” Michael said. “Continued transmission will prolong the tail of the pandemic in such a manner that infections will still be around when people lose immunity later on this year.”

While Florida in recent weeks has seen a plunge in new infections following January’s record-high omicron surge, community transmission remains “high” or “substantial” in most counties, according to CDC data through March 5. Franklin and Liberty were the only counties to receive a “low” ranking in the four-tiered system.

Ladapo's announcement also drew a harsh response from the governor's political opponents.

“Governor DeSantis and Dr. Lapado are once again confusing Floridians by promoting dangerous COVID-19 misinformation that goes against all mainstream medical guidance," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor. "I urge all Floridians to continue to follow the COVID-19 guidance provided by their doctors, in addition to the FDA and the CDC, and not the anti-science conspiracy theories DeSantis and Ladapo are pushing.”

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida to recommend healthy kids not get COVID-19 vaccine