‘I was looking for one shot’: Kansas, Missouri face fallout from J&J vaccine pause

Jonathan Shorman, Jeanne Kuang
·8 min read

Rohn Dennis was supposed to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Wednesday.

That’s now on hold.

The 74-year-old Kansas City resident has been receiving treatment for lung cancer. It’s in remission, but his medication makes getting out a hit-and-miss proposition, so he signed up for a program that vaccinates people at home.

“Like a lot of people, I was looking for one shot, it’s over with,” Dennis said.

Health authorities in Kansas City and across the country suspended use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended a pause. The agencies cited six cases of a rare and severe blood clot that had developed in the United States amid the nearly 7 million people who have received the shot, saying they needed time to evaluate data on the incidents.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine accounts for a small percentage of overall COVID-19 vaccinations in Missouri and Kansas, but it plays an outsize role in inoculating hesitant and difficult-to-reach people. It has also been a core component of Missouri’s mega-vaccination sites in recent weeks. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, individuals are fully vaccinated after receiving just one shot of Johnson & Johnson.

Dennis’ Johnson & Johnson shot had been scheduled through a partnership between KC Shepherd’s Center, which provides services to seniors, and the Kansas City Fire Department. A spokeswoman for the joint initiative said the home delivery had been put on hold.

Dennis took the Johnson & Johnson news in stride. “It was only so many out of the hundreds of thousands they were vaccinating,” he said of the blood clot cases.

He said he would wait a couple days to see what happens and then search for a shot elsewhere. Perhaps most importantly, he said he is willing to take any of the vaccines — a necessary step to a more normal life.

“When you get to be older, it’s like your social life is so important to you,” said Dennis, who co-founded in the 1970s what became the Unicorn Theatre.

State and local health authorities swiftly halted giving Johnson & Johnson injections on Tuesday, even as some expressed concern the pause means opportunities to vaccinate people will slip away. Public health officials and doctors said the suspension demonstrated the process to monitor vaccine safety was working.

The blood clot cases at issue represent a minuscule fraction of the doses administered. All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48. One person died, and all of the cases remain under investigation.

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

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

How long the pauses last is uncertain. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and their health advisers must weigh concerns of the clot cases against the risk of additional COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths if the pause leads to fewer vaccinations.

“I think in the short term, they have to do this,” said Chad Johanning, president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians. “The integrity of vaccine safety is at risk if you don’t do the right thing.”

“Like a lot of people, I was looking for one shot, it’s over with,” said Rohn Dennis of Kansas City. He was just one day away from receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shot when federal officials paused that vaccine.
“Like a lot of people, I was looking for one shot, it’s over with,” said Rohn Dennis of Kansas City. He was just one day away from receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shot when federal officials paused that vaccine.

‘Abundance of caution’

A CDC committee will discuss the blood clot cases on Wednesday, and the FDA has launched an investigation. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious disease, said the pause would allow the two agencies to investigate the clotting cases “to try and understand some of the mechanisms” and “to make physicians more aware of this.”

In a statement, Kelly called vaccine safety “just as important as getting vaccines into arms” and said the suspension arose out of an “abundance of caution.” Parson also invoked an abundance of caution in explaining the pause.

“From the beginning, my administration has supported the rigorous testing, trial, and stringent evaluation of all COVID-19 vaccines,” Parson said on Twitter.

In Washington, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt offered support for the CDC-FDA recommendation, while emphasizing the importance of vaccines. “That doesn’t mean everybody that had that vaccine should be worried about what they’re likely to face,” Blunt said of the agencies’ stance.

The pauses come as Kansas and Missouri remain far short of vaccination levels experts believe will be necessary to stop the coronavirus from spreading. About 34% of Kansas residents and 31% of Missouri residents have received at least one dose, according to data from both states. More than 70% of the population likely needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Nearly 50,000 Kansans have received Johnson & Johnson shots — about 3% of all vaccinations delivered in the state.

Last month, Missouri projected that by now the state would be receiving 88,500 doses of Johnson & Johnson shots a week, what would have been 17% of the allotment from the federal government. On Tuesday, state officials told vaccine providers that, likely because of the suspension, they won’t be receiving any doses of Johnson & Johnson, and only 157,000 total doses of the other vaccines.

The suspension of Johnson & Johnson shots comes after months of falling vaccine hesitancy nationally. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released at the end of March found 17% of respondents were taking a “wait and see” approach, down from 39% in December.

Still, Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said vaccine hesitancy is a significant problem in the Midwest.

“I don’t know exactly what CDC or FDA could have done differently, but there’s a lot of desire for more information, for certainty,” Moran said, adding that he would like the FDA to give the vaccines permanent approval. Right now, they’re being administered under an emergency authorization.

“Get it to the point in which it’s approved, so it’s just one less reason for people to have concerns,” Moran said.

Missouri state Sen. Barbara Anne Washington, a Kansas City Democrat, said she doesn’t expect the pause to make people more hesitant to get vaccinated. “The people who are hesitant were hesitant already for any vaccine. It isn’t going to make any additional people hesitant,” she said.

Johanning, whose clinic in Lawrence had been giving Johnson & Johnson shots, said there had been discussions about switching to Moderna, which requires two shots but, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures.

But the Moderna vials each contain 10 doses, while the Johnson & Johnson vials contain five doses.

“We’re not really enthusiastic about doing Moderna because if I’m seeing some guy I can convince to get a vaccine at 4 o’clock and I don’t have anybody else to give it to, I’m going to waste a whole vial of Moderna,” Johanning said.

Uncertainty over future clinics

In the Kansas City area, the one-dose shots have been used in mass vaccination efforts such as the Missouri National Guard-sponsored Arrowhead Stadium event last month that saw nearly 8,000 people get a shot.

Swope Health Services, a federally qualified health center that serves low-income populations in Kansas City, has been holding Saturday vaccine clinics with J&J doses at local churches. Clinic officials on Tuesday were able to secure Moderna doses for this Saturday’s event, a spokesman said.

While the clinics remain focused on vaccinating underserved areas, CEO Jeron Ravin said in a statement the J&J suspension “will undoubtedly impact our vaccination efforts.”

Kansas City health officials had tentatively been planning a mass vaccination event with state officials in May, spokeswoman Michelle Pekarsky said.

“That was only in the very early stages,” she said, “and may not be prioritized now.”

In a weekly call Tuesday afternoon, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services officials told vaccine providers they were “reworking” planned events to use other vaccines.

Jackson County health officials had planned to use a small supply of Johnson & Johnson doses for clinics to vaccinate detention center residents, the homebound and the homeless. The Jackson County Health Department will use Pfizer vaccine for those appointments instead, spokeswoman Mariah Cox said.

“There’s obviously going to be a challenge with trying to set up those second appointments,” Cox said. “We’re working with some organizations that have good connections, so we’re able to work with them to reach these individuals.”

She said health officials hope the suspension of the Johnson & Johnson doses encourages more trust in vaccines, rather than less.

“If people are worried about safety, the FDA and the CDC putting a pause on the J&J rollout is a good thing,” Cox said. “It’s showing that they’re putting the safety of people first and there are systems in place that are meant to protect people if things do come up.”

The Star’s Bryan Lowry and the Associated Press contributed reporting