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Scott Administration Pauses Johnson & Johnson Vaccines 'Out Of An Abundance Of Caution'

Rubber gloved hands hold a syringe
Mary Altaffer
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Associated Press File
Vermont has paused its Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics "out of an abundance of caution" following recommendations from the CDC and FDA. The two agencies are investigating six reported cases of unusual blood clots in women after getting the shot.

Updated 5:35 p.m.

Gov. Phil Scott and his top health advisors sought to allay concerns Tuesday about the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine after federal regulators asked states to “pause” use of the single-dose vaccine, pending a safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Vermont on Tuesday morning canceled all Johnson & Johnson vaccine appointments through the end of the week. Scott ordered the halt "out of an abundance of caution" after the FDA and Centers for Disease Control said they were investigating a rare blood-clotting syndrome that affected six women who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

According to the federal agencies, the women were between the ages of 18 and 48, and experienced the blood clots six to 13 days after receiving the shot. To date, more than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered nationwide.

Both Walgreens and CVS have stopped Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. Kinney Drugs, which doesn’t provide the one-shot vaccine in its pharmacies but has held two off-site clinics offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, says it supports the recommendation to suspend its use for now.

Governor's briefing

At his COVID-19 media briefing Tuesday afternoon, the governor offered a personal testimonial in favor of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the most past has been shown to be safe and effective, and I myself was happy to get it last week,” he said.

And Scott said that during a conference call with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team Tuesday morning, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky emphasized that the recommended pause was being done “out of an abundance of caution.”

“They emphasized these incidents are extremely rare, and this pause is likely to be a matter of days, not weeks,” Scott said.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Tuesday that he, too, is optimistic the state will resume administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine soon.

“I think it’s going to be a relatively brief pause, to be honest,” Levine said.

"The [White House COVID-19 Response Team] emphasized these incidents are extremely rare, and this pause is likely to be a matter of days, not weeks." — Gov. Phil Scott

That “brief pause,” according to Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith, will affect about 4,000 Vermonters who’d previously scheduled appointments to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.

He said state officials will contact those individuals to reschedule their vaccine appointments, and that they’ll be given the option of getting the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or to stay with the Johnson & Johnson, “if and when the precaution is lifted.”

According to Smith, 1,800 Vermonters have scheduled Johnson & Johnson appointments beyond this week, and that the state will reschedule those as well, if Scott hasn’t cleared resumption of the vaccine by then.

Smith said the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t have a substantial effect on vaccination rates in the short term, since Vermont is slated to receive an increased allocation of doses from Pfizer and Moderna this week. He added, however, that it’s “too early to assess what if any impact this will have on our longer-term vaccination strategy.”

“We will be looking forward to the federal government’s recommendation, and will modify our strategy and timeline if it is necessary,” Smith said.

Levine said the state will learn more after the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meets Wednesday afternoon to scrutinize the magnitude of the potential risk posed by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

A "rare" condition

According to Levine, the blood-clotting syndrome that prompted the federal safety review is called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. He said the condition is “rare,” and suggested that the risk posed by the vaccine is far surpassed by the risk of getting COVID-19.

“Just the fact that six cases in over 6 million doses ... have been reported at this point in time, just think about that in comparison to the unfortunately tragic calculations we have in this country of being a death statistic from COVID, which is about one in 500+,” Levine said.

The health commissioner noted the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccines is in place largely so that health care providers can learn more about symptoms related to the blood-clotting disorder, and how to treat it.

Levine said the Health Department hasn’t reported any cases of the rare blood-clotting syndrome in Vermont. He added the “few reports” of adverse reactions to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the Department of Health has received have all fallen into the category of “non-serious symptoms.”

Maintaining confidence

Vermont now ranks fourth nationally per-capita in overall COVID-19 doses administered, according to Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak, and seventh for the percent of the state population that’s been fully vaccinated.

A bar chart
Credit State of Vermont, Courtesy
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A slide from the Scott administration's COVID-19 press conference Tuesday showing high rates of willingness among Vermonters to get vaccinated.

Asked Tuesday whether he’s concerned that news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will lead to more vaccine hesitancy among Vermonters, Scott said he is not.

“I myself have complete confidence, and I believe that we’ll get through this, and then people will remain confident,” Scott said. “We’ve seen nothing with the Pfizer and Moderna in terms of any reactions, and we haven’t seen anything with Johnson & Johnson in this state either, that we know of. So it’s all good news, and we’ll get back on track I think very soon.”

At a Barre clinic

The day began like any other for Joan Marie Misek as she opened up the vaccine clinic at the Barre Auditorium. Misek is the Health Department's public services district director for Barre. Their clinic was going to administer about 300 Johnson & Johnson shots Tuesday.

vpr-news-barre-vax-clinic-j_j-20210413.mp3
VPR's Anna Van Dine interviews Joan Marie Misek, the Health Department's public services district director for Barre at a clinic at the Barre Auditorium.

And then, like everyone else, she found out the Scott administration had suspended the vaccine's use. So she spent the morning telling people: “Sorry, vaccinations today? Canceled.”

“We've had a mix of reactions, of course,” Misek said. “You know, some people are very, very understanding, and we really appreciate that, and others are frustrated and annoyed, and that's quite understandable. We had one gentleman who was very frustrated to learn that the vaccine wasn't available today. His wife was going into open heart surgery in a couple of weeks, and he needed this one-shot vaccine in order to be there at the hospital for her.”

And then: “Another gentleman was very, very upset, had just flown his girlfriend in from the U.K. and spent a couple thousand dollars for this or that. And this vaccine today was very integral or very important for his plans. And he shot out a bunch of expletives, and he sped off — hopefully didn't get into an accident as he was tearing out of the parking lot.”

A woman in a mask next to a sign reading canceled
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR File
Joan Marie Misek, the Health Department's public services district director for Barre, at the Barre Auditorium Tuesday. The clinic canceled 300 appointments for Johnson & Johnson shots, and Misek turned people away all morning.

But the majority of people, Misek said, were understanding:

“You know, I had one woman who said, ‘Gosh, you know, we drove all the way down from the islands,’ which is a couple hours drive to here. And she said, ‘Are people being nice to you?’ I thought that was so sweet. And, you know, some people say, ‘Well, you know what, better safe than sorry.”

Others, Misek said, didn’t know they were supposed to be receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot, and said that after being on the fence about it, the news about the “pause” made the decision for them.

“I think that it's quite understandable and expected that people would have some hesitancy about getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from here on forward,” she said. “However, I would stay tuned to learn what the CDC and the FDA determine. I mean, they are doing the right thing by putting a pause and putting the patient safety first before anything to be absolutely certain that this is either a very safe vaccine or if, in fact, it is causing issues.”

Over the course of Tuesday morning, Misek had to tell about 100 people who drove up to the Barre clinic that their vaccination was canceled. She said the Health Department was reaching out to people as quickly as it could by phone, email and text message.

“I’ll take those odds”

Taylor K. Long is a 36-year-old Windsor resident who registered Monday for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She was scheduled to receive it on Wednesday.

"To go from what was a really happy and exciting day, in which I was able to get an appointment, to now, the very next day, hearing that I probably no longer have an appointment, is a bit of a roller coaster emotionally, needless to say," Long said.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: 'A Big Day' As Vt.'s First Public Vaccine Clinics Open Wednesday

While she says she supported the CDC’s recommendations thus far, with masking and social distancing, she said pausing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine seems like a “bit of an overreaction.”

“So I’m a little bit like, really? Six people in 7 million? Like, that’s enough to shut down a whole vaccine?" Long said. "Just statistically, that doesn’t seem significant to me — and I say this as someone who’s in the exact demographic that’s being affected. Personally, I’m like, you know what, I’ll take those odds, versus the odds of COVID.”

Rutland resident Katie Dutton, 34, says she was also surprised by the choice to pause Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. She said she’s not personally worried after receiving the shot last month.

“My concern, honestly, is quite minimal,” she said.

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