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'It's frustrating': a Florida mom's search for an infant COVID shot

 Erin and Ray Chandler laugh along with Amelia Chandler, 8 months old, in their Orlando home. Erin spent three months looking for a location that would vaccinate Amelia. Many pediatricians won't vaccinate 6-month-olds and older if they aren't already an established patient, leaving parents in this situation with limited options.
Joe Mario Pedersen
90.7 WMFE News
Erin and Ray Chandler laugh along with Amelia, 8 months, in their Orlando home. Erin spent three months looking for a location that would vaccinate Amelia. Many pediatricians won't vaccinate 6-month-olds and older if they aren't already an established patient, leaving parents with limited options.

After hospitals, pharmacies and the state refused to help, an Orlando mother shares her journey in trying to get her 8-month-old daughter the COVID-19 vaccination.

One month before Erin Chandler’s infant daughter turned 6 months old, she spoke with her pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children about getting her vaccinated against COVID-19.

Chandler, of Orlando, found the hospital wasn’t offering the vaccine to infants. Major pharmacies didn’t provide her an outlet, and the Florida Department of Health said it couldn’t help either.

“Should I not be getting my 6-month-old vaccinated?” Chandler said. “The CDC says to. So one would think that's what you do. But why isn't it available?”

It took Chandler three months to get Amelia vaccinated. The road to do so was filled with rejection and a lot of patience.

How available is the pediatric vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends ages 6 months and older get the shot, but trying to get a child 6 months to 4 years a COVID vaccine in Florida can be challenging.

One reason was early accessibility to the vaccine.

In May, the federal government ended the public health emergency it activated in 20202 due to the COVID pandemic. Before the end, the CDC, state health departments and county governments were in charge of ordering and distributing the vaccine. However, the end of the emergency shifted distribution from government authorities to commercial sellers, like most vaccines.

“This is the first year that that transition happened,” said Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the CDC. “Early on in the process, the pediatric vaccine wasn't shipped as much as the adult vaccine was.”

The CDC stepped in to assist with distribution to help ease the process. Shah said that vaccine accessibility has been smoothed out.

“We've learned a lot about how to transition a product from something that was almost entirely managed by the government to something that is now largely managed by the private medical market,” he said. “Now the vaccine has transitioned over to the normal way that vaccines are ordered, distributed and administered, which is to say like any other medical product, like the flu shot.”

But in Florida, that isn’t where the trouble stops.

Getting a pediatric vaccine in Central Florida

To help individuals locate the vaccine, the CDC created vaccines.gov. The site allows users to locate the closest location offering the shot. It also allows custom prompts to give as detailed of an inquiry as possible, such as the age of the user.

But when searching for vaccination sites for 6-month-olds in Central Florida, the results come up empty.

That’s been a common problem, Shah said.

“The data that are there are not as fresh as we'd like it to be. In other instances, the data aren't as updated as we'd like them to be,” he said.

Broadening the search beyond Central Florida ZIP codes doesn’t help either. The search results offer at least four private pharmacies across the state that will vaccinate 6-month-olds.

Calling them, however, yields different results. All stated that they could not vaccinate 6-month-olds as it is against Florida law.

That’s true, but it wasn’t always.

During the public health emergency, the federal government enacted a provision, the PREP Act, that suspended state provisions and allowed pharmacists to administer vaccines to kids as young as 6 months.

“But with the end of the public health emergency, many of those provisions in the PREP Act also went away,” Shah said.

Florida was one of those states whose provisions returned to the pre-2020 status quo. Larger commercial pharmacies – Walgreens and CVS – also don’t offer the vaccine to children younger than 5 years old.

As for Florida’s Department of Health, it’s made its position on the vaccine very clear: Don’t get it.

Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo has spoken openly against the vaccine, citing studies that indicate the it causes inflammation of the heart in young men. The National Library of Medicine has studies that support this, but only in rare cases. During a press conference in September, Ladapo recommended against the vaccine.

“It's unsafe and it's truly irresponsible for FDA, CDC and others to be championing something like that,” he said.

The state health department will vaccinate children, but not younger than 5 years old, a spokesperson confirmed.

Contacting Central Florida providers doesn’t provide much of an answer either. Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children said it would have the shot for pediatric patients but didn’t have a timeline as to when.

Other local hospitals wouldn’t comment.

With not many options left to turn to for pediatric vaccinations, pediatrician offices were next on the list of possibilities.

Central Florida Pediatric Offices

As it turns out, there are plenty of pediatric offices that offer the vaccine, but there are limitations.

First, most offices will only offer the vaccine if the caller is already an established patient. This was found to be true after calls to dozens of Orlando-area offices.

University of Florida Pediatrics was among the first to confirm this, but offices in Ocala and Gainesville were not accepting new patients. This was true with most pediatric offices that were called.

Dr. Pam Trout runs a pediatric office in Winter Park. Originally, she was happy to vaccinate nonpatients.

“It felt like I was doing a public service initially, and I felt good about that,” the pediatrician said.

However, the good feelings didn’t last. Trout experienced more patients’ parents who were upset Trout wasn’t providing more convenient appointment times. She started working on Saturdays to accommodate, but felt as though she was being taken advantage of.

“It turned into such a hassle that I was like, forget about it. I'm just not going to do it,” she said.

In her professional circles, she found some of her colleagues weren’t interested in offering the vaccine or even publicly stating that they had the vaccine due to the political charge that comes with it.

"People are in their tribes and feel very strongly about what their tribe believes in, but when it comes to speaking out or practicing medicine, you don't want to appear to be in a tribe,” she said.

Vaccinating Amelia

Amelia giggles every time she hears her toy puppy sing and dance for her. It never fails to make her laugh. Likewise, Erin and her husband, Ray, don’t stop smiling when Amelia's laughing.

Amelia has family that she hasn’t met yet, like her grandmother – who decided not to get vaccinated.

“That's her choice, but she also hasn't been able to meet her granddaughter because of our choice,” Ray said. “We want to make sure we're vaccinated or our children are vaccinated, so that they can protect themselves and offer that same protection to someone else.”

Part of the reason the Chandlers were so determined to get Amelia protection was because of the lengths they went to have her. Erin is 43 and Ray is 61. Amelia was conceived through to In vitro fertilization. The first two egg retrievals didn’t take. The couple were pretty happy when the third was successful.

As a result, they want to do everything in their power to protect their daughter.

“I am a proponent of vaccines,” Erin said. "I believe it's the lesser of two evils. You take a chance on getting COVID and what the repercussions could be or you take a chance on getting the vaccine and what the repercussions could be. I prefer taking the chances with the vaccine than her possibly getting COVID.”

Pediatricians like Dr. Trout tend to agree with this logic.

“There are many more kids dying or having complications of COVID than there are like tetanus or chickenpox, or you know, some of the other things that we think of as routine vaccination,” Trout said.

Florida records show there have been 629 cases of chickenpox and tetanus in the 6-month to 4-year age group over the past four years.

Erin called dozens of pediatric offices, hospitals and pharmacies and could not find a place willing to vaccinate her daughter.

There was one time when she found a local office that was willing, but she ran into a different problem.

“They didn't take my insurance,” she said.

Running out of options, Chandler scheduled an appointment to visit a clinic run by the Georgia Department of Health. It does not require patients to live in the state.

Before making the long trip, Chandler tried once more for someone local. She tried calling a pediatrician’s office that rejected her earlier because Amelia was not a patient.

“I'm just going to call them and beg,” Chandler said.

This time, she caught the practice owner, who told her they could give her the shot, but only if she could come immediately.

“I'll be in my car in 5 minutes,” Chandler told them.

About an hour later, Amelia received the first of a two-part dose —in December, just before the holidays and family gatherings.

"This whole process was so frustrating. I just don't understand what changed," she said. "The CDC hasn't changed its guidelines. It's still 6 months and up. So what changed? I don't know, and after all this, it's a mystery to me."

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Joe Mario Pedersen