TAMPA, Fla. - Parents are in the home stretch with COVID-19 vaccines for babies and their youngest children after Wednesday’s FDA advisory panel meeting. But once those vaccines are approved, parents in Florida who want their kids to get inoculated may face a longer wait. That's because Florida's surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo says he does not support giving the COVID vaccine to babies and children under the age of 5 – so Florida is the only state that did not pre-order any doses.
On Wednesday, the FDA's advisory group recommended the Pfizer and Moderna shots for children as young as six months old to four years old, but it took a while to get here.
"Actually that came up in the discussions is a bunch of the people said this can happen again. The next time we're facing a pandemic. We cannot have a kid’s vaccine lagging 18 months behind the adults," said Jill Roberts, an associate professor at USF Health who watched the FDA meeting. "So you cannot use data from an adult vaccine and then apply it to your kids. It just doesn't work. They're too small. Their dosage is totally different. So we can't do that. The next time we have a pandemic, we really have to start all these things up at once."
The panel had different ideas about the need for a vaccine, but ultimately they recommended the vaccines. The medical experts also said they believe a majority of children had already had COVID, and the true total number of infections is unclear.
"Unfortunately, what we see is even though COVID can be kind of mild, that age group is a little more likely to be serious and especially in the under six months old," said Roberts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 442 children under five years old have died from COVID-19. Doctors at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg painted a snapshot of what they're seeing.
"It's been a misnomer since the beginning that kids don't get COVID, and that's not true," said Dr. Joseph Perno, the chief medical officer at Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital. "We've had a large number of kids presenting to our emergency department, and of late we've seen a rise again as we've seen another surge in the community. We've seen hospitalizations and children in our intensive care unit."
However, Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo said he does not support vaccinating the youngest, and the state did not pre-order any doses. According to McClatchy newspapers, that makes Florida the only state in the country to not pre-order pediatric vaccines from the federal government.
The Florida Department of Health sent FOX13 this statement about that decision, which could mean parents in Florida who do want vaccines for their children may face significant delays:
"The Florida Department of Health (Department) has made it clear to the federal government that states do not need to be involved in the convoluted vaccine distribution process, especially when the federal government has a track record of developing inconsistent and unsustainable COVID-19 policies.
"It is also no surprise we chose not to participate in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when the Department does not recommend it for all children. Doctors can order vaccines if they are in need, and there are currently no orders in the department’s ordering system for the COVID-19 vaccine for this age group."
"We expect to have good data that the benefits outweigh the risks of any therapies or treatments before we recommend those therapies or treatments to Floridians. That is not going to change. I don’t think that is particularly radical. I think it’s very sensible," said Ladapo. "From what I have seen, there is just insufficient data to inform benefits and risk in children. I think that’s very unequivocal."
University of Florida researcher Matt Hitchings said the data shows more pros than cons.
"From a personal point of view, this vaccine is safe. It's clearly safe. It's been so many kids, five up to 18 have now got it. And it clearly has a very good safety profile. It may not be as effective as we were hoping for, but it has some benefit," said Hitchings, an assistant professor of biostatistics at UF.
Hitchings said he will be first in line with his young children.
"I think I do think it's important to, [for] those of us who are still waiting, give us the choice. This vaccine needs to be available so that parents can make the choice they want to make to feel comfortable," said Hitchings.
That choice could come very soon. The next step is deciding who within the age group qualifies for the shots and how they will be administered. The Pfizer doses for the youngest kids are three shots while the Moderna is two doses because they are two different concentrations. Doctors said it’s important for parents to talk to their child’s pediatrician to figure out whether the vaccine is right for their child.
"I know there's been some hesitancy with the school-age kids. Getting them vaccinated hasn't been as well accepted as we would like to see, and I expect similar with the younger age. So I urge parents to really just talk to their pediatrician and have that nice, educated dialogue in how it applies to their child," said Dr. Perno.