On Monday, Florida surgeon general Joseph Ladapo announced that the state would no longer recommend Covid vaccines for healthy children. This change in guidance bucks recommendations from practically every public health agency, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a statement, Lisa Gwynn, the president of the state’s American Academy of Pediatrics chapter described Florida’s decision as being “irresponsible,” and noted that “there is widespread consensus among medical and public health experts about the life-saving benefits of this vaccine.” She added, “The Surgeon General’s comments today misrepresent the benefits of the vaccine, which has been proven to prevent serious illness, hospitalizations, and long-term symptoms from Covid-19 in children and adolescents, including those who are otherwise healthy.” Mother Jones reached out to Robin Straus, a veteran pediatrician in the Miami-area community of Bay Island Harbor, to learn about how she plans to navigate Florida’s new guidance.
On her patients: Our practice is in an upscale neighborhood, but we still take Medicaid, so we do have people who are underserved. Politically, we’re very mixed. I really am very impressed with the number of the older kids in the 12 to 18 range who have been vaccinated. I would say probably that for those in the five to eleven group, it’s not as great. Maybe 30 percent. It’s definitely a challenge—getting the younger ones vaccinated. Everything has become so partisan. The majority of my patients know which side of the aisle I sit on. Nobody ever knew what my [political] opinions were, even five years ago. My opinions are based on the science, because I’m a pediatrician.
On parents’ objections to the kids’ Covid vaccines: Parents will say, ‘They already got Covid, they don’t need the vaccine!’ Well, that’s not true. Or they’ll say it’s too new. I tell them it’s not that new. Worldwide, millions of doses have been given to children of that age group. I do understand, but at this point, it’s not that children are being used as guinea pigs. And some point out that the children’s vaccine isn’t as effective as was thought. Well, our flu shots are not the best recipe against the flu each year, but overwhelmingly, when you look at people hospitalized for the flu, 80 to 90 percent were not vaccinated. It’s the same with Covid. Maybe you’re still going to get sick, obviously, people still get sick. But when you look at hospitalizations, it’s overwhelmingly people who are not vaccinated. I feel that I am not smarter than the experts. I don’t believe that any of these [public health experts] are on the take. I find that reprehensible and insulting. Once I understood what the science was behind the mRNA Covid vaccines, I thought it was incredible.
On what she intends to tell parents about the new state recommendations: The surgeon general is not a pediatrician. He came in with preconceived prejudices—he is part of the anti-vaccine, anti-Covid-science group. I always have listened to the American Academy of Pediatrics, to the experts, who all are saying to get [children] vaccinated. This governor, this administration—they have a predetermined prejudice against the vaccine. Same with masks—I still advocate for masks, despite the schools [dropping the mask mandates], because people have a lot of factors to consider: if there’s somebody at risk in your home, or if the kid is around the grandparents a lot. It’s something we do for the greater good. People are like, the masks are ridiculous, you don’t need a mask. People still walk into our office without masks. We hand them out—no one is allowed in our office without a mask. These are going to be tough conversations. I can’t get into fights with people. All I can do is give them the information, the science, which is not what’s being given by the Florida Department of Health.
On her biggest worries about the new guidance: I worry that the next variant—which, unfortunately, there will be—will catch everybody behind. Omicron came in with a roar. We went from everybody thinking that there was no more Covid to everybody within a week or so being infected. And if you are not vaccinated [when the next variant emerges], you don’t have three weeks of luxury. Kids account for a lower percentage of hospitalizations and deaths, but there should be no deaths, especially because of bad information and bad recommendations—and from all places, the Department of Health! Clearly the underserved, people with limited access [to healthcare] are always the most at risk. The inequity of the healthcare system is just a reality.
On her fear that anti-vaccine activists will target other childhood vaccines next: I’m old enough to have seen children be hospitalized, to have permanent brain damage and permanent physical damages, and to die from diseases that are now vaccine-preventable. Haemophilus Influenzae Type b (Hib), pneumococcal, meningococcal disease—children are now vaccinated against these. When I started at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, every single day a child was admitted for Hib. I saw meningitis, facial cellulitis, periorbital cellulitis—which is a big inflammation around the eye—bone and joint infections, and epiglottitis, which can lead to rapid progression of respiratory compromise and death. It’s just mind-boggling to think that we could go back to that. The diseases are waiting. They’re waiting for stupidity.