As covid-19 devastated the Southeast during the pandemic, many residents turned to Publix for their vaccinations, turning shopping and getting vaccinated into what the Florida-based grocery store chain touts as being “a pleasure.”
But in the days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for children ages 6 months to 5 years old, Publix confirmed that it would not offer vaccinations for the nation’s youngest kids.
A Publix spokesperson told the Tampa Bay Times and WTVT on Wednesday that the grocery store chain would not offer vaccines to children younger than 5 “at this time” but declined to explain the decision. Publix’s website shows that the chain is still accepting appointments for children ages 5 and older. It does not acknowledge the CDC’s recent decision on children younger than 5 now being able to be vaccinated.
“Publix is not administering the COVID vaccine to individuals under 5 years of age at this time,” the company’s customer-service department tweeted. “We suggest that customers speak with pediatrician’s offices, community health centers, children’s hospitals, and public health clinics for availability at this time.”
The company, which is based in Lakeland, Fla., has about 1,300 stores across the Southeast, according to Fortune. About two-thirds of Publix stores are in Florida, which initially was the only state in the country last week to not preorder the newly authorized vaccines for children younger than 5. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) later agreed to allow state pediatricians and health-care providers to order the shots.
A Publix spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The news comes as pediatricians are administering the nation’s first coronavirus vaccines for children in that age group after the CDC approved giving the shots to as many as 19 million children across the United States. The CDC’s approval followed authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, which found both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to be safe and effective.
“Together, with science leading the charge, we have taken another important step forward in our nation’s fight against COVID-19,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a Saturday statement after endorsing the unanimous recommendation of the agency’s advisory panel.
The conclusion of the long, deliberate regulatory process is expected to be a welcome relief for families who have seen the lack of vaccination among children as a major obstacle to intergenerational gatherings. Health officials plan to ramp up public campaigns to encourage vaccination as a still-underutilized weapon against the ongoing pandemic.
Florida has reported nearly 6.4 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. The state is still averaging more than 10,000 cases a day over the past week — second in the nation behind California — but the numbers are considerably lower, compared with earlier surges in the pandemic.
When it comes to getting vaccinated, 68 percent of the state has completed vaccination, slightly above the national average of 67 percent.
While almost all of the country has taken part in the nation’s vaccine rollout for children, Florida has pushed back on what the state’s health department described as a “convoluted vaccine distribution process.” Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has repeatedly questioned the safety and efficacy of the shots, despite robust evidence that they protect against severe illness and death. In March, Ladapo went against CDC guidelines when he recommended against giving the coronavirus vaccine to healthy children because, he argued, they are at lower risk of severe illness from covid-19. The direction from the surgeon general was denounced by pediatricians and top infectious-disease experts, and the White House called it “deeply disturbing.”
As the single largest vaccine supplier in Florida, Publix became a key part of DeSantis’s vaccine rollout last year. The state’s largest private employer received more than a quarter of the state’s doses in 2021, according to the Times.
Publix has donated to both Democrats and Republicans, but the company notably gave $100,000 to DeSantis’s political committee last year, campaign finance records show. The Post reported last week that Julie Fancelli, the 72-year-old Publix heiress, paid the speaking fee for Kimberly Guilfoyle, a fundraiser for former president Donald Trump and the fiancee of his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., at the rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the Capitol riot. In the days leading up to the Jan. 6 rally, Fancelli wired $650,000 to several organizations that helped stage and promote the event.
Publix has also sought to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit accusing the company of being responsible for the death of a former deli worker who died of coronavirus. The family of Gerardo Gutierrez claims Publix prohibited the 70-year-old from wearing a mask at work during the early stages of the pandemic, which resulted in his contracting the coronavirus from a co-worker and dying of covid-19. Publix has denied the allegations, saying the claim from Gutierrez’s family is “littered with inflammatory and wholly unsupported rhetoric.” A judge refused Publix’s request to dismiss the case last year, the Times reported.
Since parents of children under 18 months old must get their kids vaccinated at pediatric clinics, children’s hospitals or medical clinics, Publix is not required to do the same. Publix is part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program and orders vaccine doses from the federal government.
Critics on social media questioned the move by Publix, but conservatives widely praised the decision, including Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.). Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, lauded Publix for “following the data.”
“Good decision,” Pushaw tweeted.
Some companies have taken similar positions on vaccinating the youngest Americans during the initial rollout. Walmart, Walgreens, Sam’s Club and Winn-Dixie are only vaccinating children as young as 3 years old, while CVS has opened up appointments for children as young as 18 months.
Yasmeen Abutaleb, Joel Achenbach, Dan Keating, Lori Rozsa and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.