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'The lives of children are at stake': Pediatricians slam state guidance on COVID vaccines for kids

An image of a pair of hands holding two vials of COVID-19 vaccine, one for children and one for adults.
Rogelio V. Solis
A nurse holds a vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 - 11, right, and a vial of the vaccine for adults, which have different colored labels, at a vaccination station in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Leading Florida pediatricians say the state's official guidance that the risks of taking the COVID-19 vaccine "may outweigh the benefits" for healthy children is dangerous and politically motivated.

"The data is very clear that the vaccine does provide protection against the virus. So we're rather confused as to why or how they could make these recommendations," Dr. Lisa Gwynn, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine said on The Florida Roundup.

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"In general, healthy children with no significant underlying health conditions under 16 years old are at little to no risk of severe illness complications from COVID-19," the state Department of Health wrote on March 8.

Gwynn said that's not true, and that Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo's claim that the risk of myocarditis in older teens outweighs the benefit of the vaccine is "a totally false statement."

"We looked at this very carefully initially, when adolescent boys were coming down with myocarditis and again, the benefits outweigh the risks," she said, adding that none of the teenagers had long-term effects from the myocarditis. "It was very mild. They were all provided with supportive care and they all completely resolved."

She said many pediatricians "feel as though this is part of the political narrative that is being pushed forward by Governor DeSantis."

The Florida Roundup invited Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo for an interview, but he declined.

'We feel attacked'

Gwynn said it's been "a rough month with Governor DeSantis' actions," including new state restrictions on the number of unaccompanied minors shelters are able to take in on behalf of the federal government, him scolding students at a press conference for wearing masks, the "buck the CDC" video she called "preposterous" and then the new guidance on vaccines and children.

"We feel attacked in the medical community," she said. "Pediatricians have worked so hard through this pandemic to keep kids safe. What we care most about is for our patients' safety and health. We don't have a political agenda. And so we are going to continue to push forth the evidence that is clear that vaccines are safe and effective for children."

She said the Florida chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics met with lawmakers this year to "plead" with them not to change the existing vaccine schedule for other childhood illnesses, like measles, mumps and rubella.

"We are worried that his threat will become a reality. It will go from COVID-19 to some of the other vaccines, all of the other vaccinations that we're recommending for children," she said. "Vaccines are one of the greatest public health accomplishments of all time, and this is a direct threat to the health and safety of our communities. And so we all have to stand up to this."

'The lives of children are at stake'

Dr. Jeff Goldhagen, chief of the division of community and societal pediatrics at UF Health Jacksonville, agreed that political calculations are driving medical guidance from the state. He said the unknown, longterm risks of COVID for children far outweigh any risk from the vaccine.

"These were political decisions made at the expense of the health and well-being of children, which is criminal from my perspective," he said.

And Goldhagen said some medical organizations are making a mistake by addressing this as a medical issue.

"There is no question that vaccines work. There's no question that the balance between risk and benefit clearly, clearly falls on the scale of benefit," he said. "This is a political issue and we need to be addressing this as a political issue, in particular because the lives of children are at stake. Children, because of this policy, will get sick. They will be hospitalized. And unfortunately, there's a chance that some will die because of this political position."

Goldhagen, like Gwynn, pointed out how vaccines have protected generations from once common and fatal diseases. He said vaccines work because they not only protect the individuals who take them, but the entire community.

"That's a principle and a precedent that has been established and accepted in the United States for the past 60 years," he said. "And to violate that principle and that precedent now for political reasons is extremely, extremely dangerous.”

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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.