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A Florida Healthy Kids board member is removed over her concerns about vaccine access

A young girl sits on a woman's lap and receives a shot in her left arm from a nurse. All three wear masks, the girl has a ribbon in her hair and holds a star shaped balloon.
Mary Altaffer
Shivani Agarwal, left, holds her daughter Kiran, 3, as registered nurse Margie Rodriguez administers the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months through 4 years old, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx borough of New York.

CFO Jimmy Patronis removed Dr. Lisa Gwynn from the Florida Healthy Kids Board for expressing concerns about COVID-19 vaccine access in the state for kids younger than 5. She talks about why she's still worried.

The head of Florida's American Academy of Pediatrics chapter says her public concerns about COVID-19 vaccine access for young children got her ousted from a board that runs the state's Healthy Kids Program.

Staff for Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis informed Dr. Lisa Gwynn this week that he was removing her from the Florida Healthy Kids Board, which oversees a program that provides subsidized health insurance to children using state and federal funding.

In an email Patronis' office shared with Health News Florida, deputy chief of staff Susan Miller told Gwynn that the decision was based on comments she made about the state’s coronavirus response that the CFO disagreed with.

Gwynn had publicly voiced concerns about Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo’s recent announcement that the state would not make COVID vaccines for kids younger than 5 available at county health departments. She said she had also spoken to the Florida Department of Health about the issue a couple weeks ago.

Gwynn was appointed to the board in March and Miller notified her of her removal on Wednesday.

"You went on to make some very political statements that do not reflect the CFO’s point of view; even going so far as to say that the state is 'obstruct[ing]' access to vaccines," Miller wrote in the email. "The CFO does not share your opinion and believes that the state has gone to great lengths to protect lives in the face of the Coronavirus."

Florida was also the only state in the nation that did not pre-order vaccines for this age group from the federal government.

Ladapo says heopposes vaccinating young children, which goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. This week he acknowledged to a congressional subcommittee that the decision to not involve county health departments could affect approximately 33,000 children.

Patronis’ office acknowledged Health News Florida’s request for comment about Gwynn’s removal but has not yet replied with a statement.

Reporter Stephanie Colombini talked with Dr. Gwynn about why she’s worried about vaccine access.

What concerned you about the decision to not make the vaccines available at county health departments?

Local health departments were really critical in providing the vaccine to pediatricians locally that didn't have the minimum dose ordering requirements. In other words, many of them would only need maybe two or three vials and you couldn't order that small of a quantity through the state immunization portal. So local health departments would distribute smaller allocations to local pediatricians.

And then also, many kids that don't have a medical home or who are uninsured, they would receive their COVID vaccines there at the local health department. So we were concerned that here we had waited so long for the data to come in for the 6 months to under-5s, and we were ready to go. And then to have that happen, it was just very disturbing and distressing.

What are you hearing from families?

Well, everybody's looking for a place to immunize their infants. Their pediatricians can get hold of the vaccine for under-5s.

The retail pharmacies aren't immunizing kids under 3. There are a few Minute Clinics here and there, CVS Minute Clinics, that are immunizing down to 18 months. But if you have a 6-month-old that you would like to have the COVID vaccine administered to, it's not easy to find somebody that has the vaccine to immunize.

Now, if you go to a large practice, some health systems have it available. But it's not readily available, like the vaccines for the older kids.

Who are you most concerned about right now?

I'm worried most about those children that are uninsured that rely on the health departments. I'm concerned about those areas in the state that are rural locations where there might only be one pediatrician, and they may receive all of their vaccines from the local health department, they will not have access.

Here's the other ironic part is that if you're over 5, the local health departments do carry the COVID vaccine. It doesn't make sense. And it is not science-based because the evidence is clear: the vaccine is safe and effective for children 6 months to 5 years of age. There shouldn't be any reason to make that decision. No other state in the country has made this decision, nor has any medical sanctioning or organization body made any other recommendation other than the vaccine is effective and safe.

You told me you had raised some of these concerns to the state recently ahead of being removed from the Florida Healthy Kids board. Did you get an explanation then about their reasoning to not involve county health departments?

You know, I didn't really ask why they made that decision, I just wanted to focus on the solution. And that's what this is about. This is not about, you know being asked or, I don't want to say the word “fired” but you know, asked to not be part of the board, the Healthy Kids Corporation board. That's not what this is about.

I mean this is about speaking up about a problem and trying to come up with a solution. And right now we have a problem with immunizing kids under five years of age. We have a problem with access to the vaccine and we would like to come up with a solution. We want to immunize our patients.

Where to find the vaccine for little ones

Health News Florida created a guide for finding COVID-19 vaccines for kids younger than 5 in the Tampa Bay region.

Families can also visit vaccines.gov to search for locations around Florida. Families can search by ZIP code but should call ahead to confirm as some providers only vaccinate toddlers not infants.

There is also a helpline people can call: 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489).

Updated: July 1, 2022 at 3:05 PM EDT
This story has been updated with response from the office of CFO Jimmy Patronis.
I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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