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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 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.

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 from COVID-19.

Contacting Arnold Palmer, 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 her either.

“Should I not be getting my six-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 CDC recommends the ages 6 months and older get vaccinated from the virus, but trying to get a child between the ages of 6 months and 4 years old vaccinated 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 response to the 2020 COVID pandemic. Before the PHE’s end, the CDC, state health departments, and county governments were in charge of ordering and distributing the vaccine. However, the end of the PHE shifted distribution from government authorities to commercial sellers, much 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 vaccine. 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 of them 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 PHE 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 old.

“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.

When it comes to speaking out or practicing medicine, you don't want to appear to be in a tribe.
Dr. Pam Trout, of Winter Park.

Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has spoken openly against the vaccine citing studies that indicate the vaccine 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 FDOH will vaccinate children, but not younger than 5 years old, an FDOH spokesperson confirmed.

Contacting Central Florida 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 Central Florida offices will only offer the vaccine if the caller is already an established patient. This was found to be true after WMFE called dozens of Central Florida offices.

The 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 by WMFE.

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

“It felt like I was doing a public service initially, and I felt good about that,” she 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, her parents, Erin and Ray Chandler, don’t stop smiling when she’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 daughter 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-years-old. Ray is 61. Amelia was born thanks to In vitro fertilization. The first two egg retrievals didn’t take. They were pretty happy when the third was successful.

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

Erin and Ray Chandler
Joe Mario Pedersen
90.7 WMFE News
Erin and Ray Chandler pose with their daughter Amelia, 8 months old. Erin and Ray decided against having Amelia meet non-vaccinated members of their family until Amelia could receive the vaccine herself, which she did at the beginning of December. after Erin searched for three months for a location that was able and willing to.

“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 Chicken pox and tetanus in the 6-month to 4-year age group, in the last four years.

Erin Chandler called dozens of pediatric officers, 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 in her search – it previously refused her since Amelia was not already 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 five minutes,” Chandler told them.

About an hour later, Amelia received the first of a two-part dose — 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 their 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."

Originally from South Florida, Joe Mario came to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida where he graduated with degrees in Radio & Television Production, Film, and Psychology. He worked several beats and covered multimedia at The Villages Daily Sun but returned to the City Beautiful as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel where he covered crime, hurricanes, and viral news. Joe Mario has too many interests and not enough time but tries to focus on his love for strange stories in comic books and horror movies. When he's not writing he loves to run in his spare time.
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