Health and Human Services secretary pushes back on Florida's guidance against new COVID-19 boosters

'The boogeyman may be out there, but it's not the federal government,' Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra says
Posted at 6:35 PM, Sep 13, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb once again in the Sunshine State, Florida's top health official has recommended those under 65 years old to avoid getting new booster shots, which are expected to be available to the public later this week.

The warning comes despite the nation's health agencies signing off on the shots as safe and effective.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cheered the new state guidance Wednesday.

In an online post, he alleged that the latest vaccines were "hastily approved" and vowed that Floridians wouldn't be "guinea pigs." 

His comments came shortly after Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joe Ladapo said in a virtual roundtable that he would advise against the use of the boosters for those under 65, making Florida the first state to do so. 

"With virtually every walking human being having some degree of immunity -- and the questions we have about safety, and about effectiveness, especially about safety," Ladapo said, "my judgment is that it is not a good decision."

Ladapo is a controversial figure when it comes to COVID-19. He has long criticized the vaccines and questioned their safety.

Ladapo said Wednesday that evidence supporting the latest round of shots wasn't enough to warrant his support, outside of those most vulnerable to serious infection. 

"We at least need to better understand it before charging forward like our esteemed leaders at the CDC and FDA," Ladapo said.

The new Pfizer and Moderna boosters were developed to better target variants. The FDA and CDC signed off on them earlier this week. Both believed the benefits outweighed risks for everyone six months and older. 

Federal officials have defended the shots as well-researched, citing pre-clinical trials and data showing the threat of cardiac complications in young men is higher with COVID-19 infection as opposed to vaccination. 

"The boogeyman may be out there, but it's not the federal government," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday morning. "It's not the vaccine. It's those who are trying to conjure up these images that are just, you know, just not based in fact."

Becerra is among those encouraging Americans to take the new shots, saying he would get his own booster when it became available. When asked his thoughts on Florida's guidance against them, Becerra questioned Ladapo's judgment.

"That's more than a headscratcher, especially for any medical professional to be out there saying that in the face of all the science and the medicine that's been done, the investigative work, the testing on this vaccine," Becerra said. "For anyone who calls themselves an MD, to say don't get vaccinated with this COVID vaccine, as I said, it's more than a headscratcher."

Florida's COVID data meanwhile continues to show concerning metrics

"There's a reason to start taking action," Dr. Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist, said. "I'm sure most people have heard about people around them getting sick and infected with COVID." 

Salemi noted serious cases in the state haven't reached last year's levels, and he said they were a tenth of the pandemic's worst. Even so, Florida is trending in the wrong direction. 

"About four months ago, Florida was at a little over 600 adults who had been currently hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19," Salemi said. "That number, again, just compared to four months ago, is up 174 percent."

Regardless of the figures — most Americans seem uninterested in getting another shot. Less than 20% got the previous, a Bivalent booster dose, according to the CDC. Federal officials hope the new vaccines will change that — even if Florida takes a different path. 

CDC officials also said most public and private health plans will cover the boosters. Those without coverage should be able to get them for free at local health clinics.