J&J vaccine pause cancels local clinics; officials say it is sign vaccine safety system is working

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday after federal health officials said six women in the United States, younger than 48, experienced rare and severe blood clots after getting the shot.

The pause has forced many local providers, including the Routt County Public Health Department, to cancel appointments made for Tuesday and Wednesday using that vaccine. More information and further recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected Wednesday.

County Public Health reached out to people with appointments for Wednesday’s now canceled vaccine clinic telling them the county would maintain their contact information and reach back out when the pause is lifted or when they hold another Moderna vaccine clinic.

The pause on administering the vaccine is “out of an abundance of caution,” the CDC and Food and Drug Administration said in a joint statement Tuesday. In a news conference, Gov. Jared Polis said the pause is meant to “increase public confidence in the vaccines.” Polis said he learned on a call with the White House earlier in the day that the pause will “last days, not weeks.”

The symptoms in those cases that developed blood clots arose between six and 13 days after receiving the shot, and people who develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their doctor, the joint statement advises.

“I think this pause is a strong reflection of the national oversight of vaccine safety,” said Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.

France said the key question looking to be answered in the next few days is whether these blood clots are just coincidental or if they are associated with the vaccine.

The blood clots, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, are rarely seen in the general population. If a million people were followed for a year, France said between 10 and 13 of them would have this type of blood clot. He anticipates more cases will be seen in the next few days, which could shed more light on any connection between the clots and the vaccine.

“The work we’ll be doing is to understand whether, in the United States, the rates have been actually higher in the few weeks following the J&J vaccination,” France said.

Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s chief medical officer said the pause reflects the cautiousness of the system monitoring the safety of vaccines. He added that the risk of blood clots due to having COVID-19 is far higher than the possible association of these clots to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“That is a context people should remember. If they are worried about clots, frankly, they should be more worried about getting COVID-19,” Harrington said.

There are many other explanations for blood clots, Harrington said, and there are many other medications and treatments that have a risk of causing them. For example, many contraceptives also carry an increased risk for blood clots, he said.

Harrington doubted the vaccine would be pulled as a result of these cases. Even if a link between the vaccine and the clots were shown, the vaccine likely would still be used with the acknowledgment of the potential side effect, he said.

This is how many other countries are addressing clots with the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, which is not currently approved for emergency-use authorization in the U.S. Harrington noted these two vaccines are made using similar technology.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes up a relatively small amount of the doses received by the state of Colorado each week, Polis said. This week, the state received 9,700 doses of the one-shot vaccine and nearly 280,000 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

While there will be some impact, Harrington said he did not anticipate this would cause significant delays in getting people vaccinated.

Kelli Johnson is the pharmacist at Memorial Regional Health’s Community Pharmacy in Steamboat Springs where they have only been giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She said appointments for Tuesday have been canceled, and she anticipates canceling Wednesday’s appointments as well.

“Most of the people want to remain on our list, though, if we are able to move forward, so it hasn’t scared off too many people,” Johnson said.

What CDC, FDA and state health official recommend tomorrow will determine if other appointments will need to be rescheduled, Johnson said.

While giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in her pharmacy, Johnson said about 1% of people, six of them, have reported feeling dizzy, light headed or nauseous after getting the vaccine. Still, in five of the six cases, the person had not eaten before they got their shot, she said.

“It is hard to say if it is directly related to the vaccine or if it is just the population that we are vaccinating,” Johnson said. “We are all kind of learning as we go here, but we want to do it as safely as possible.”

While uncertainty can bring angst, Johnson said she believes the unknowns of actually getting COVID-19 are still more concerning, and this should not deter people from getting vaccinated.

“I don’t think it is something that should scare people, I think the CDC is doing an excellent job staying on top of it, and I think that’s truly the main reason why they decided to pause,” Johnson said. “They want to make sure we are doing it as safely as possible,”

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