Student vaccine effort postponed at Dakota Wesleyan, Mitchell Tech

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Erik Kaufman, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
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Apr. 13—Plans for on-campus COVID-19 vaccination clinics for students at Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell Technical College have been put on hold after federal and state officials instructed health care providers to pause administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Tuesday.

Eric Larson, director of pharmacy who is also serving as area vaccine coordinator at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell, said the plans were postponed after word came down from health officials.

"There is going to be a meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) regarding the vaccine and the experts will try to decipher what will happen with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Right now, what we planned to do for the students is on hold," Larson told the Mitchell Republic.

Larson said Avera had received a substantial supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccine about two weeks ago, and the health group, which has been holding mass vaccination clinics in the area, began to look for sections of the population to offer the surplus. He said the Johnson & Johnson variant, the only one-dose vaccine available for use in the United States, made sense for students at the two Mitchell campuses.

"The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works nicely for them, as it's one shot and they're done, so they don't have to come back for a second dose if they leave before the end of the school year," Larson said.

But the news Tuesday changed those plans, at least temporarily. Officials with the Center for Disease Control and the Food Drug Administration released a statement Tuesday saying a handful of incidents surrounding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine caused the stoppage in administration of the vaccine, one of three to be approved for use in the United States, along with vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, which have not been affected by the announcement.

According to a joint release from the CDC and the FDA, as of April 12, more than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the United States. Both organizations are reviewing data involving six reported United States cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in individuals after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In those cases, a type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis was seen in combination with low levels of blood platelets. All six cases occurred among women between the ages of 18 and 48, with symptoms beginning to show between six and 13 days after vaccination.

The CDC will convene a meeting of its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Wednesday to further review the cases, and until that is complete, the organization is recommending a pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"We are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of abundance of caution. This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot," the release states.

The South Dakota Department of Health echoed that recommendation in a release Tuesday.

"The safety and well-being of all South Dakotans is our top priority. Out of an abundance of caution, and until we know more on the reported cases, all vaccinations across our state will follow the CDC's and FDA's recommendations, and pause all administration of the J&J vaccine until further notice," Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of health for South Dakota, said in a statement. "We remain confident all those who've already received the J&J shot have no reason for immediate concern but encourage residents to speak with their medicals should concerns arise."

Approximately 15,743 South Dakotans have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and no adverse cases of concern have been identified in the state.

Larson said the development is disappointing, and likened it to having "the rug pulled out from under" their plans at DWU and Mitchell Tech. But the occasional surprise should be expected in efforts this complicated and wide-ranging, he said.

"We will reconfigure our plans and use the existing tools in the kit and make the best use of those," Larson said.

Avera clinics in the area are currently using the Pfizer vaccine for new first doses and are continuing to use Moderna for patients ready for their second dose of that particular variant, but new appointments have leveled off considerably since the early days of the vaccination effort, when more susceptible portions of the population were given priority to receive the vaccine.

With bookings for a vaccine shot dropping from 100% full to 65% and 30%, Avera has plans in place to offer the vaccine to walk-up appointments Friday at the Avera Patient Financial Services building on Highway 37 bypass. Those interested are still encouraged to make an appointment, but workers will accommodate those who simply show up for a shot as best they can.

"This Friday, we have a rather large first-dose clinic, and right now we're under 30% full on that one at this time," Larson said. "That's why we are opening it up to walk-ins for anyone who would like to come and get a vaccine between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m."

The fact that the clinic will be open to walk-ins gives another opportunity for students who had planned on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to get their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine instead. There does not appear to be any concerns currently with the two other vaccine variants.

"Whatever shakes out with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — maybe there is a concern and maybe there isn't — just know that at this time it's a totally separate issue and has nothing to do with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine," Larson said.

Julie Brookbank, associate director of communications at Dakota Wesleyan University, confirmed that the school was going to take part in the effort but has postponed any vaccination plan with the Johnson & Johnson dose until they get the go ahead.

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"Whatever shakes out with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — maybe there is a concern and maybe there isn't — just know that at this time it's a totally separate issue and has nothing to do with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine."

— Eric Larson, Avera Health

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"I would say at this point we're in a holding pattern waiting for further information from providers like Avera and our pharmacy partners that we've worked with," Brookbank said. "We'll attempt to provide whatever we can provide to our student body," Brookbank said.

She said the school still will hold a vaccine clinic Friday for staff and faculty awaiting their second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Scott Fossum, dean of student success at Mitchell Tech, said his school was ready to take part, as well, but will postpone clinics with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until they are given the all clear that they can proceed.

"We got an email today that Avera is following the CDC's recommendations and the FDA, so we put those on pause for right now," Fossum said.

He said Avera also had reached out to them about students taking advantage of the Friday clinic offering the Pfizer vaccine.

"We're grateful for Avera to provide that opportunity for our students," Fossum said.

For those looking to start their vaccine process at the Avera mass clinic on Friday, April 16, interested parties can make appointments through the group's online signup site at www.avera.org/covid-vaccine by clicking on the online form to sign up for an appointment. After answering screening questions to ensure the patient qualifies for the vaccine, the patient selects a community and can see available appointment times. The clinic will be held from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The clinic will take place at the Avera Patient Financial Services building located at 1308 W. 15th Avenue on the Highway 37 bypass next to Floor to Ceiling.

Avera continues to encourage everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of whether they have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection. Larson said Avera would continue to provide those shots to whomever wants on, it's just a matter of getting people to sign up and roll up their sleeves when they can.

"We're telling (patients) that we're welcoming walk-ins, but it does help to make appointments to plan accordingly," Larson said. "If you want a vaccine, we've got a place for you on Friday. We're just looking at how we're going to make a positive out of all of this."