In two separate press conferences Tuesday, officials with Atrium Health and Mecklenburg County Public Health (MCPH) addressed new guidelines handed down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommending local agencies temporarily pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in light of severe blood clots suffered by six individuals out of nearly 7 million who have taken the vaccine.
Atrium’s medical director of infection prevention Dr. Katie Passaretti and two top MCPH officials emphasized the rarity of the side effects tied to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, pointing out that less than one in a million people who have taken the vaccine have experienced these rare blood clots.
According to Passaretti, a key driving force behind the recommended halt in administering the vaccine is to ensure that health-care providers are educated on how to treat the blood clots, which affect the veins going to the brain and differ from those experienced by regular smokers and people who take birth control.
There have been no reported cases of blood clots resulting from any vaccine, including Johnson & Johnson, in North Carolina, though officials at both press conferences Tuesday praised the decision to halt distribution of that specific vaccine as a way to ensure the public that federal officials are taking all potential side effects of the vaccines seriously.
“The worst thing we could do is to plow ahead and have multiple cases [of blood clots] pop up,” said MCPH director Gibbie Harris on Tuesday. “I’m not saying that’s what would happen, but it is smart I believe to pause and take a few days to really carefully assess the situation and come back with specific recommendations from the experts on how we move forward with this vaccine. It’s erring on the side of safety and I don’t think anyone can argue with that at this point.”
Symptoms of the rare blood clots include severe and persistent headaches, leg pain, abdominal pain and shortness of breath. The rare patients who have experienced these blood clots have experienced symptoms within three weeks of receiving the vaccine, according to MCPH medical director Dr. Meg Sullivan. She encouraged anyone experiencing these symptoms to contact a medical professional and seek treatment, as she would anyone experiencing severe and persistent medical problems, she said.
“Individuals who have been vaccinated and do not fit in this category should be reassured to know that they now have a high level of protection against COVID-19,” Sullivan said.
No changes to vaccine rollout for now
Approved for use in the United States by the FDA in February, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine differs from the two previously approved vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna in that it only requires one shot to be effective, rather than needing a follow-up shot within three or four weeks like the others.
For that reason, county health officials have been using it strategically in areas where scheduling a second shot can be more difficult, such as in drives to vaccinate people experiencing homelessness or in the homebound vaccination program, which brings vaccines to residents who have difficulty leaving their home.
In the coming days, MCPH had planned two events using Johnson & Johnson vaccines: a Salvation Army vaccine drive scheduled for Tuesday night at which they expect to vaccinate between 50-100 people and a large drive at Camp North End this Saturday at which up to 2,000 people will be vaccinated.
Both events will continue as planned using the Pfizer vaccine instead of Johnson & Johnson. The county will also use the Pfizer vaccine to accommodate the 70-80 homebound appointments that were scheduled to receive Johnson & Johnson doses in the coming days.
“We don’t anticipate this having a huge impact on the amount of vaccines that we are able to provide this week,” Sullivan said.
After a shipment that was sent before the federal government halted distribution arrives, the county will have around 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hand. Although each one does have an expiration date, Harris said she doesn’t expect any will need to be thrown out, as new federal guidance is expected within two to three days, long before the doses expire.
Pushing back against vaccine hesitancy
As for how Tuesday’s news will affect residents’ reluctance to get the vaccine, officials agreed that education will be key and that news of the pause in distribution should assure people that the government is putting safety over expediency.
On Tuesday, Harris pointed out that the county’s data now shows the more infectious B117 variant, also known as the UK variant, is already present in Mecklenburg County. The variant is shown to be more easily transmissible, especially among younger populations, and lead to more severe illness. The county’s last COVID-19 data release on Friday showed the first rise in hospitalizations among Mecklenburg County residents in 2021.
“What we are seeing is a much lower risk with any kind of issue from the vaccine than from actually becoming infected with the virus,” Harris said. “The vaccine — plus all of our prevention measures — is what’s going to help us begin to normalize some in our community, so we need people to continue to have faith in the vaccine and to continue to move forward with accessing it as quickly as they can.”
As of Tuesday, 28.4% of county residents were partially vaccinated, and just shy of 20% were fully vaccinated, according to Harris.
“So we have obviously a good ways to go,” she added.
In the coming months, MCPH will work on ways to make the vaccine more accessible by planning events that don’t call for planning ahead. She referenced an increase in walk-up and drive-thru vaccination events, as well as continued expansion in providing walk-in opportunities at Publix, Harris Teeter, pharmacies, doctors’ offices and other locations.
“We’re not getting huge messaging that people just don’t want [the vaccine], it’s just not as front-of-mind as it was for a number of people in the early stages,” Harris said. “So we just need to continue to encourage people to be vaccinated, but also to make it as accessible as possible so that it’s easy for them to get the vaccine.”
Harris pointed out that there are still appointments open at this Saturday’s Camp North End drive.
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