Robert Snyder, the top administrator at the Flagler County Health Department, called Flagler School Board member Maria Barbosa “anti-science” and “anti-vaccine” and urged voters to “pay attention” in a briefly chafing exchange about vaccines between the two on live radio this morning. Barbosa repeatedly refuted Snyder’s charge, saying she was only seeking more information for herself and from parents. (See the full audio segment below.)
Snyder and Barbosa were among the guests on David Ayres’s weekly Free For All show on WNZF, there to discuss the school board’s decision on Tuesday not to go ahead with offering the HPV vaccine to sixth graders, pending more input from parents. Barbosa was part of the three-member majority, along with Colleen Conklin and Janet McDonald, that opposed for now the health department’s push to offer voluntary HPV vaccines to sixth graders, despite an extensive opt-in process.
Snyder and other health officials appeared twice before the school board to make their pitch. He was in WNZF’s studio alongside Gretchen Smith, the department’s communications manager, summarizing as he had before the board the reasons why the HPV vaccine has become an important cancer-preventing measure that could significantly reduce the incidence and mortality of more than 30,000 cancers a year, particularly among women prone to cervical cancer or men prone to a variety of throat cancers.
The exchange between Snyder and Barbosa reflects the mounting frustration of health officials over the past few months as they have attempted to convince school board members, with a pile of data, that the vaccine is safe and easily made available, free of charge, alongside other vaccines offered in schools (t-dap and flu). It also was a reflection of Flagler’s status as the county with the second-highest rate of vaccine-exempt children, largely because of parents invoking a religious exemption that has served as cover for many vaccine deniers.
Well into the 50-minute show, which also featured Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart, who spoke on election-related matters, Barbosa was patched in by phone. She spoke of the discussion on the school board and said parents can still inoculate their children with the HPV vaccine for free at what she referred to on several occasions as the Free Clinic (the Free Clinic, an independent non-profit, does not offer the HPV vaccine; the health department does). “I am very grateful to them because they are providing that service to parents and to the community,” Barbosa said, echoing Conklin’s and McDonald’s approach. Meanwhile, she said, she wants to hear from more parents, and asked parents to “let me know your concerns, what you think about it,” inviting them to do so on her Facebook page.
“My Question to you is: It’s a good Idea for Flagler schools to provide HPV vaccine to students of 6 grade? YES or NO,” she asks on her page, calling it a survey. (In fact, it would be the health department providing the shots in schools, as it does flu and t-dap vaccines, not school district staff.)
Free For All: The HPV Vaccine and Flagler Schools (27 mn)
In the studio (and at minute 19:30 in the audio to the right), Snyder told Barbosa he appreciated the opportunity to attend two school board workshops so far with Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the health department and other staff members he described as “the public health officials and professionals in our community.” He spoke of the scientifically proven effectiveness of the HPV vaccine in stopping cancer, his voice betraying an edge of exasperation. “This is about accessibility, as we explained to you, it would take minutes to provide the vaccine, to piggyback, providing children with the t-dap vaccine and the flu vaccine,” he said. “In this day and age, it’s just remarkable actually that you are against that, and to be honest with you, we do appreciate and welcome the opportunity to educate and to talk to parents at PTO meetings like you suggested, and we will do that, but we’re at odds here. And you say that you make decisions on what’s in the right and best interest of children, and you’re surprising me. I don’t think you’re doing that, as the health officer of Flagler County.”
Barbosa immediately disputed Snyder’s claim that she was against vaccination. “No, I’m not. Because even myself I have some vaccination, even as an adult,” she said. “That is a comment you’re putting out there that I am against it. No, I am not against it.”
“As far as I am concerned, you’re anti-science and you’re anti-vaccine,” Snyder said. “It’s a real shame that you’re a member of the school board.”
“No, I’m not anti vaccine,” Barbosa said over some of Snyder’s words. It’s not clear whether she’d heard his last indictment, focusing on the charge about vaccines.
“So voters, pay attention,” Snyder said.
“You’re putting words–you’re putting words in my mouth,” Barbosa said. “Because I didn’t give you the word yes right away, you are taking it personal, and I do apologize for that as well since you feel that way, but like I said my big concern is, I want to know what the parents feel about it, and I want to have, to know, and I have to have more information. It’s that simple.”
She then launched into criticism of health officials, saying she’d she’d asked at the first workshop what “ingredients” were in the HPV vaccine and claimed the information was not provided so she had to look it up online. In fact, the department officials provided all board members the Centers for Disease Control’s last-updated and most authoritative and detailed information sheet about the vaccine, though Barbosa claimed that because it was three years old, it was outdated. That is not the case with CDC documentation, which provides the latest available information and isn’t updated unless changes necessitate it.
Barbosa also spoke of the paperwork that would indicate parental consent. “That has not been given to us also,” she said.
Ayres then cut in. “So what you’re saying,” he asked, “is that you’re not necessarily a no vote, you could become a yes vote with more information?”
“Correct,” Barbosa said.
Smith, the health department’s communications manager, told Barbosa the department could “certainly send to you the consent form that we would intend on giving to parents, it’s the same form that we give out for t-dap, it’s the same form that we give out for flu vaccines,” forms that have routinely been in the school district.
“Again, this is all voluntary,” Smith continued, before addressing an objection that McDonald, who chairs the school board, had raised: that students would have to get out of the classroom to get the HPV vaccine.
“I’m a parent,” Smith said. “My kids just graduated last year, they went all the way through Flagler schools, and if I had gotten something in the mail or if I had gotten something that said you know, we’re going to be giving these shots in schools, I’d be all over it, because you know what, I don’t need to take the time out of my–it’s kind of a burden sometimes to take your kids out of school for half a day, sometimes for a whole day, sit in the pediatrician’s office for like an hour, maybe more, and then go back to work. Then they’ve been out of the classroom for several hours. It also cuts into your worktime. So we’re trying to make it so that parents have this as an option. If they don’t want to give it to their kids, great. Fine. Wonderful. We appreciate that. But if we can save one life, if we can save one life down the line by giving a kid a shot that’ll prevent them from getting cancer, that’s what I think is most important, and that’s what I think is being missed in this whole conversation.”
“We do want to save life,” Barbosa said. She described the matter as “a very controversial issue, not about me, it is in general in the community and all over the world, and that’s why it’s important to have a survey out there to see what is the parents’ thought about it.” In his appearances before the school board, Bickel had addressed those “controversies,” saying there were no such controversies in the medical community–not among physicians, not in medical journals, not in the science, which is settled in matters of the vaccine. The appearance of controversies is the work of viral and unsubstantiated chatter on social media, where Barbosa was now directing parents to give her feedback.