Kansas, Missouri suspend Johnson & Johnson vaccine, following lead of federal agencies

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Jonathan Shorman, Robert A. Cronkleton
·4 min read
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Kansas and Missouri suspended distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine Tuesday, as federal health authorities review data from six reported cases of individuals in the United States who developed a rare and severe type of blood clot after receiving the shot.

The pause is a blow to vaccination efforts in Kansas, Missouri and across the country as states race to inoculate populations and drive down any possible future surges in cases. States had already been bracing to receive fewer doses of Johnson & Johnson because of production problems.

Because it requires only one shot, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is considered ideal for difficult-to-reach populations and people who are hesitant. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two shots. But the pause, even if quickly lifted, could shake confidence among those who are already more likely to turn down a shot.

The reported cases of severe blood clots represent a an incredibly tiny fraction of the overall number of people who have gotten the shot — six out of more than 6 million people. Health officials now face the high-stakes task of balancing concerns over the clots against the risk of more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and even deaths if vaccination is delayed for some.

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, announced the pause at a Tuesday morning briefing for reporters hosted by the University of Kansas Health System. Norman said it is in line with a joint recommendation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re putting a pause until which time the federal agencies … look hard at the numbers,” Norman said. “The numbers of cases are quite small.”

Still, Norman said, you “can’t turn a blind eye to something as significant as that.”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said in a statement it would also pause “until further notice.” The agency’s director, Randall Williams, said DHSS anticipates having more information shortly “to make further decisions about overall vaccine distribution in light of this new development” and promised to update people who have already been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson after a federal advisory committee meets on Wednesday.

Kansas City area health officials said they won’t administer the vaccine for now.

The Platte County Health Department announced that anyone who has an appointment for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Tuesday is asked to reschedule through Missouri’s Vaccine Navigator system, covidvaccine.mo.gov/navigator, or by calling 877-435-8411.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment is also pausing Johnson & Johnson vaccines and awaiting direction from the state, Dr. Sanmi Areola, the agency’s director, said.

The Kansas City Health Department had requested the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but has not received any, said Michelle Pekarsky, public information officer for the health department.

The vaccine has been going to the Missouri National Guard for mass vaccination clinics and transient population, she said.

The health department has been working with the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency to set up a mass vaccination clinic at Worlds of Fun in May, but that’s possibly in jeopardy, Pekarsky said.

Millions of people across the United States have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Early Tuesday, the FDA said the pause “is important to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.”

Johnson & Johnson has played a significant role in Missouri’s state-supported mass vaccination clinics, including an event several weeks ago near Arrowhead Stadium where 8,000 people were given the one-and-done shot.

Less than 4% of the shots administered in Kansas have been from Johnson & Johnson, according to KDHE data. Norman predicted the pause won’t have a “big impact” on the state’s overall rate of shots because of Johnson & Johnson’s small role overall.

However, Norman noted some clinics scheduled for Tuesday morning had been put on hold. He said Kansas will recommend groups and organizations providing vaccinations shift over for now to Moderna and Pfizer.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a huge setback because the last few weeks we talked about all the Johnson & Johnson vaccine we were supposed to be getting but for a variety of production and other reasons, it never materialized,” Norman said.

David Wild, vice president of performance improvement at the University of Kansas Health System, said the pause is a signal that the country’s vaccine safety mechanisms are working as designed. Dana Hawkinson, the hospital’s medical director of infection prevention and control, said the pause is a “great example” of identifying a possible bad side effect or safety concern.

“There are people up and awake 24 hours a day looking for these types of things to make sure that it is safe for the people receiving the vaccines in your community, in the country, in the world,” Hawkinson said.

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The Star’s Anna Spoerre contributed reporting