J&J COVID vaccine on hold in Alabama, health official says

Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·4 min read

Apr. 13—Health care providers in Alabama will stop administering the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine while federal officials look into the possibility that the vaccine may be connected to dangerous blood clots in some patients, state health officer Scott Harris said Tuesday.

"We think this is a very rare occurrence," Harris said of the reports of blood clots.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a joint statement Tuesday morning calling for a "pause" in administration of the J&J vaccine, after six women — out of 6.8 million people who've had the vaccine — developed a type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. The CDC is reviewing use of the vaccine, the agency announced.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective against the COVID-19 virus than the two other shots available in the U.S., doctors have said. But with less-stringent cold storage requirements and greater ease of delivery — it's given in one dose, not two — it has often been seen as a handy resource for vaccinating hard-to-reach populations.

Harris, in a telephone press conference with reporters Tuesday, said Alabama has given the J&J vaccine to around 71,000 people so far. That would make J&J recipients less than 10 percent of the entire vaccinated population.

According to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health, around 797,000 people in the state are fully vaccinated against the disease.

Harris said around 159,000 doses have been delivered to the state, leaving more than 80,000 doses that can't be administered until federal officials clear the vaccine for use.

Some of those doses, he said, were headed for National Guard clinics the state has organized in rural counties. In most of those counties, the Guard held first-dose clinics with the Pfizer vaccine weeks ago.

Harris said the Guard planned to bring along J&J shots to vaccinate people who showed up for the second-shot clinic even though they missed the first dose.

The Guard was also planning to use Johnson & Johnson in Hale County, where bad weather forced cancellation of a first-dose clinic scheduled earlier.

"It will sort of make us sit back and think about how we are going to reach certain populations, for example, homebound folks," Harris said.

Federal officials have offered no timetable for when Johnson & Johnson will again be approved for use, Harris said. He said there have been no reports of blood clots among users of the vaccine in Alabama, and he said the halt by federal officials didn't make him less confident in the safety of vaccines.

"I actually find this encouraging," he said of the pause. He said the halt showed that federal agencies had a "really sensitive and effective" process of review.

He said health officials found blood clots in one out of more than 1 million users of the vaccine, a rate that was above the background level of occurrence of blood clots. Even so, he said, it's still unclear whether the vaccine caused the blood clots, and a one-in-a-million chance of harm is considered acceptable in some medical procedures.

The halt on Johnson & Johnson may have a limited effect in Calhoun County, where two of the biggest vaccine distributors are using other companies' products.

Tom Dixon of Oxford Health Systems said the health care authority is now getting shipments of 2,400 doses of Pfizer vaccine every three weeks for use in its drive-through clinic on Hamric Drive.

Dixon said he's seen little impact from the Johnson & Johnson withdrawal on local residents' confidence about vaccines.

"We've not had any citizens turn away," he said.

Regional Medical Center in Anniston has been using the Moderna vaccine. Spokeswoman Kristin Fillingim said Tuesday that the hospital is receiving new shipments of the vaccine and expects to open up new appointments for shots.

Fillingim said seven people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday. At the height of the pandemic, the hospital had more than 80 COVID patients.

More than 10,000 Alabamians have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but rates of new infection and hospitalization have plummeted since vaccination efforts ramped up in late winter.

Harris said there have been reports of "breakthrough cases," in which people who had already been vaccinated caught COVID-19 anyway, though those cases were few. He said that is to be expected with vaccines that have a reported effectiveness rate of 90 percent or higher, but less than 100 percent.

Those cases, he said, provide a good reason to continue social distancing.

"Please remember to stay home if you can, to wear a mask and to distance from other people if you can't stay home," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.