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Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause Forces Connecticut Clinics To Adjust

Stephen Zenner
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Connecticut health providers are urging patience and caution with regard to a new pause on Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccines after a federal investigation into cases of a possible rare blood clotting condition.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Tuesday morning that states stop using the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine as they investigate cases in which six women developed a type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) within three weeks of receiving their vaccine.

No clear link has yet been established, and none of the cases has occurred in Connecticut, where about 100,000 people have received this shot.

State officials said despite the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccines, there are enough doses of Pfizer and Moderna on hand to continue with rollout plans.

After meeting with federal officials, Gov. Ned Lamont said he salutes the CDC for erring on the side of caution, but this news shouldn’t cause residents any anxiety with no firmly established link with the vaccine. 

“That’s a one-in-a-million chance of a severe side effect,” he said of the six cited cases. “One in a million. That’s somewhere in the area of getting struck by lightning or probably a higher chance of somebody ... driving to the vaccination site and getting into an accident.”

Lamont’s chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, said there are still plenty of appointments available around the state. 

“We are seeing some additional slots open up,” he said at a Tuesday news conference, “so if your appointment is canceled with your provider, you can call or go on VAMS and you should be able to find an appointment for Pfizer or Moderna very quickly.”

“There’s no question that anything untoward creates fear and anxiety, and we want to make sure that we don’t accelerate that,” said Dr. James Cardon, chief clinical integration officer at Hartford HealthCare. “We don’t have all the answers yet, so we just have to be patient and wait.”

The six known cases represent an extraordinarily small percentage of the total 6.8 million injections of Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered in the U.S., done largely with minimal or no side effects.

FDA officials Tuesday said the recommended pause is being done “out of an abundance of caution” and is expected to last for at least several days.

Health providers maintain that any possible risk continues to be extremely low.

Still, the state Department of Public Health says anyone who has gotten this shot within three weeks should contact their health provider if they experience severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or swelling, shortness of breath or stroke-like symptoms.

Keith Grant, senior system director of infection prevention at Hartford HealthCare, said as of now he considers this vaccine to still be safe and effective in immunizing people against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“There’s still data that needs to be looked at. Is there a true correlation? We need to figure that piece out,” he said. “And if there is a true correlation, how do we look at and appreciate the usage of this vaccine in the next few days?”

DPH advised Connecticut health providers and vaccinators to delay Johnson & Johnson clinics, or offer alternative two-dose vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

Cardon said the pause did not significantly impact the health organization’s overall vaccine administration as they’ve been predominantly administering the mRNA vaccines, given a recent reduction in Johnson & Johnson availability.

A mishap last month at a Baltimore plant manufacturing Johnson & Johnson doses caused federal supply to drop and delays of shipments to states, forcing local health providers to cut back on Johnson & Johnson appointments.

“The most important thing for us right now is managing the obvious pause itself, but managing messaging to our colleagues and our patients across the state as individuals cautiously and, with some degree of anxiety, ask questions and ask for direction,” Grant said.

Vaccine clinics in Connecticut cities have used the single-shot vaccine as a way to quickly inoculate underserved residents.

On Tuesday, the city of New Haven and Griffin Health had been due to start offering Johnson & Johnson shots to city residents at pop-up clinics.

“We canceled today’s [clinic] and moving forward, Griffin at the pop-ups is going to use a combination of Moderna and Pfizer,” said Mayor Justin Elicker.

As part of an aim for equitable vaccine distribution, city officials are eliminating as many obstacles to access as possible. Part of the rationale for offering the Johnson & Johnson shot had been to eliminate the need for a return appointment.

Like New Haven, Middletown’s health department hasn’t relied entirely on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But Middletown has been using the single shot for vaccinating vulnerable populations, like members of its homeless community. 

“For that transient population, where we didn’t have to worry about following that person now and make sure we tracked them for the 28 days before they came back for their second shot, it’s going to make it a little more challenging, and maybe not as equitable for the population out there,” said Kevin Elak, acting city health director.

Middletown is going with Moderna’s two-dose vaccine for an upcoming mobile clinic. It has been offered in tandem with Johnson & Johnson in the past, but now patients won’t have a choice.

Meanwhile those who have already been administered the Johnson & Johnson shot in Connecticut were also closely following the news.

Christina O’Brien from Greenwich was vaccinated April 1. She had already had a presumptive case of COVID-19 and said she and her family were happy to be inoculated -- and that hasn’t changed with the latest news.

“Before we did it we consulted our doctor and asked if there was anything in our history or bloodwork that would make us not want the vaccine and wait until the summer, and there is nothing there,” she said. “I am surprised so many people have panicked and canceled appointments.” 

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.
Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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