As covid infections from the Omicron-21 variant continue to rise in Flagler County, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration were issuing conflicting statements about ordering vaccines for children under 5. DeSantis and his administration aggressively derided the option on Thursday, then backtracked somewhat on Friday.
Last week the Flagler County Health Department reported 223 confirmed infections. This week the number is up to 317, a number that sharply undercounts the real level of infections. “Because of the home testing that’s happening, there’s no obligation or system in place for those results to be reported to the Department of Health,” Flagler Health Department director Bob Snyder said. “Our estimate is that, that 317, it’s really three to four times that in terms of prevalence in the community.”
Outbreaks were reported at four local assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Four staffers and one patient were infected at Grand Oaks, a total of 35 individuals–22 residents and 13 staffers–were infected at Flagler Health and Rehab, eight residents and three staffers were infected at Brookdale Assisted Living, and nine residents were infected at Tuscan Gardens. The case reports date back to May 27 and May 30 at Grand Oaks and Flagler Health and rehab, and to June 6 and 7 and the other two facilities.
Today AdventHealth Palm Coast was reporting 13 patients admitted with a primary diagnosis of Covid. And after a hiatus of a month and a half without a recorded death from Covid in Flagler, those numbers are again rising, with a total of 363 since the pandemic began, up by four in the last two weeks.
While at least a third of people who get Covid are not symptomatic, the most common symptoms with the Omicron 21 variant are fever, runny nose and congestion, excessive fatigue, aches and pains and sore throat–but not loss of taste as often as was the case with Delta and previous variants, Snyder said.
Omicron is less virulent but still dangerous, especially for people with underlying conditions and for the elderly. Children are not immune. MOre than 30,000 children under 5 years old have been hospitalized with Covid, and nearly 500 have died from it, according to Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy.
In Florida, 67 children have died from Covid, including 18 who were younger than 5, 16 who were between 5 and 11, and 33 who were between 12 and 17, according to Health Department data.
The Food and Drug Administration today authorized both the two-shot Moderna and three-shot Pfizer vaccines for the nation’s 20 million children who are 6 months old and under 5. The Centers for Disease Control is still meeting today and tomorrow before issuing its recommendation.
Pfizer says two shots of its vaccine are only 28 percent effective in preventing disease, and 80 percent effective when a third shot is given, though it bases that information on trials involving less than 1,700 participants, a relatively low number. And there were questions from FDA evaluators about the 80 percent figure’s reliability, according to The New York Times. Moderna places its vaccine’s effectiveness at 51 percent for children 6 months old to 2 years old, and 37 percent for children 2 to 5. The FDA says the vaccine helps prevent more severe cases of covid, especially for children with underlying conditions.
DeSantis said Thursday that Florida would not dedicate any state resources to give “jabs” to younger children, essentially barring local health departments to do what they’ve been doing since the vaccine roll-out–provide vaccines to anyone who asked and who was eligible.
“Our department of health has been very clear, the risks outweigh the benefits, and we recommend against. That’s not the same as banning it, I mean people can access it if they want to,” DeSantis said at a press conference. Pharmacies, for example, would have the vaccine. “But there’s not going to be any state programs that are going to be trying to, you know, get Covid jabs to infants and toddlers and newborns. That’s not something that we think is appropriate, and so that’s not where we’re going to be utilizing our resources in that regard.”
In light of the confirmed number of hospitalizations and deaths among children younger than 5, DeSantis was grossly inaccurate when he claimed that the risks outweighed the benefits. Dr. Katherine Fleming-Dutra, a CDC researcher who presented data at today’s evaluation meeting, said the ongoing omicron surge has led to a record number of hospitalization of children in the 6 month old to 4 year old category, half of them with no underlying conditions.
“Unvaccinated people 5 and older had 10 times the risk of dying of Covid-19, compared with those who received at least two shots of the vaccine,” The Times said, citing figures presented by Dr. Matthew Daley, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Colorado and the leader of the CDC’s vaccine working group. The figures “provide real world-evidence that most deaths from Covid-19 are preventable through vaccination,” he was quoted as saying.
Still, DeSantis derided the reason parents are frightened about Covid for their children, blaming “media hysteria” and “misinformation,” even as he was himself framing his perspective on the vaccine for children in little less than hysterics and misinformation. But it’s been DeSantis’s approach going back to a few months after the vaccine rollout, when he shifted focus from prevention to a “freedom” agenda that amounts to indifference to, contempt for, or ban against covid-safety measures, including such things as vaccine mandates or recommendations.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has opposed vaccinating all children 17 and younger, and has been a vaccine skeptic overall. Local health departments have been forced to adopt the dismissive approach, at times against local health administrators’ better judgment.
McClatchy newspapers reported that Florida, alone among 50 states, had skipped pre-ordering the vaccine for younger children, a move confirmed by DeSantis in his news conference on Thursday and a statement issued by Jeremy Redfern, the Florida Department of Health’s press secretary, the same day: “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,” Redfern said. “It is also no surprise we chose not to participate in distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when the Department does not recommend it for all children.”
Today, the Florida Health Department was backtracking: “Contrary to disinformation circulating, the vaccine ordering process has not changed in Florida. COVID-19 vaccine ordering – including for the 6 month to 5 year age group – has always been available to providers. Following the [FDA’s] Emergency Use Authorization issued today, June 17, 2022, enrolled providers are able to order COVID-19 vaccines for the newest authorized age groups through Florida SHOTS.”
The White House welcomed the reversal.
“We are encouraged that after repeated failures by Governor DeSantis to order COVID-19 vaccines even after every other state had ordered, the State of Florida is now permitting health care providers to order COVID-19 vaccines for our youngest children,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. said today in a statement. “We believe it is critical to allow parents everywhere to have the choice to get their kids vaccinated and have a conversation with their pediatrician or health care provider.”
Jean-Pierre added: “Even though Governor DeSantis reversed course and is now ordering vaccines, we will pull every lever to get pediatricians across Florida vaccines as quickly as possible. This is an encouraging first step, and we urge the state to order vaccines for its state and local health departments, so that all Florida parents have the opportunity to get their children vaccinated.”
But the Flagler Health Department was not taking any chances. In keeping with the governor’s and the department’s stance against recommending vaccines for younger children, it will not make the vaccine available at its facility in Bunnell, as it does for all those 5 and over.