(The Hill) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is escalating his feud with the White House over the COVID-19 response as he positions himself for a possible presidential campaign in 2024.
DeSantis has been taking heat for his decision not to pre-order from the federal government COVID-19 vaccines for infants and young kids.
The White House initially made 10 million vaccines for young children available for states to pre-order in anticipation that the shots will get the green light from federal regulators. Having a small stockpile of doses on hand will mean shots can start being administered shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses their use.
But Florida was the only state that decided not to place an order.
During a press conference on Thursday, DeSantis argued that kids have “practically zero risk” of getting seriously ill from COVID, so the state will not be devoting any resources to getting them vaccinated.
“Doctors can get it. Hospitals can get it. But there’s not going to be any state programs that are going to be trying to get COVID jabs to infants and toddlers and newborns,” DeSantis said to applause from the crowd on hand. “That’s not where we’re gonna be utilizing our resources.”
White House officials accused DeSantis of taking away parents’ rights to choose whether to get their kids vaccinated.
“The state of Florida intentionally missed multiple deadlines to order vaccines to protect its youngest kids,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters Friday.
“Now, despite repeated efforts to reach out and engage officials in the state of Florida, elected officials deliberately chose to delay taking action to deny Florida parents the choice whether to vaccinate their children or not,” Jha said.
DeSantis has spent much of the pandemic attacking the Biden administration’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
The Sunshine State’s governor has made it a point of pride to question and challenge a range of federal guidance, repeatedly promoting the “freedom” of a state without policies like mask or vaccine mandates.
The Department of Health is led by Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, a DeSantis appointee who has openly questioned the safety and benefit of the COVID-19 vaccines.
In March, Florida became the first state to recommend against vaccinating healthy kids and teenagers ages 5 to 17. The state issued guidance saying those kids “may not benefit from receiving the currently available COVID-19 vaccine.”
Even though federal agencies and national health groups recommend vaccinating young children, DeSantis suggested they have not been through enough testing to ensure they are safe for use in kids.
“Our Department of Health has been very clear, the risk outweighs the benefits and we recommend against it,” DeSantis said.
Still, he noted the state was not stopping any doctor or hospital from ordering what they may need.
Florida’s Department of Health said it was merely choosing not to participate in the “convoluted” federal vaccine distribution process, “especially when the federal government has a track record of developing inconsistent and unsustainable COVID-19 policies.”
The agency insisted there will be no delay in providers getting doses should they want any.
There was more finger pointing on Friday, after the White House implied DeSantis bowed to public pressure and reversed course by allowing pediatricians and other providers to order vaccines.
“Yesterday, pediatricians in every state in the country could order vaccines or had the opportunity to order vaccines for their offices, except for pediatricians of Florida. As of today, pediatricians in Florida now have that choice,” Jha said.
“Whether that’s a reversal or not, I will leave up to you to decide. But something clearly changed between yesterday and today in the state of Florida.”
But Florida health department spokesman Jeremy Redfern said nothing has changed, and the plan all along has been to let providers start ordering from the state’s online portal as soon as the Food and Drug Administration authorized the shots.
Redfern said Florida refuses to be the Biden administration’s warehouse for unused vaccines. Once a doctor’s office or hospital knows what their demand is, they’re free to put in an order with the state, he said.
Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FCAAP), accused the DeSantis administration of playing political games.
“Look at all the attention that this whole thing has brought to our governor,” she said.
Gwynn said it wasn’t clear that doctors would be allowed to order vaccines so quickly.
“The challenge right now that we’re most concerned about is because we’re the last ones to order, we’re going to be the last ones to receive it,” Gwynn said.
“We could have started vaccinating our kids this week. But now we have to wait until July. You know, I mean, kids can still get sick. Kids can bring it home and give it to family members.”