By Carol Vaughn —
Virginia health officials announced Tuesday the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will not be administered until a federal investigation into a rare but serious side effect is complete.
Anyone in Virginia with an upcoming appointment for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be contacted to reschedule, according to Virginia vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula.
“This pause is reassuring in that it demonstrates that the systems that are in place to monitor vaccine safety are working. We look forward to a thorough review by federal health officials. Meantime, we will continue Virginia’s vaccine rollout at this time with the other two authorized vaccines, developed by Pfizer and Moderna,” Avula said in a written statement.
Federal agencies called for a pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six people in the United States developed a rare, severe type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, in combination with low platelet levels, six to 13 days after being vaccinated.
The condition makes the typical blood clot treatment, heparin, potentially dangerous.
All six were women between 18 and 48. One woman died and another was hospitalized in critical condition, according to a press release.
Avula during a briefing Tuesday said the national vaccine adverse effects reporting system indicates the fatal case was in Virginia.
More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are reviewing data about the cases, according to a joint statement by the agencies.
The CDC was to hold a meeting of its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Wednesday to further review the incidents.
“Right now, these adverse events appear to be extremely rare. COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority for the federal government, and we take all reports of health problems following COVID-19 vaccination very seriously. People who have received the J&J vaccine who develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider,” the statement said, in part.
Most of the vaccine supply in the U.S. is from two other companies, Pfizer and Moderna.
Still, the Johnson & Johnson has the advantage of being a single-dose vaccine, whereas the others require two shots. It also is easier to ship and store.
Virginia already was slated to see a big drop in Johnson & Johnson doses coming to the state this week, after the company last month found a batch at a Baltimore facility had accidentally been contaminated; around 13 to 15 million doses had to be discarded.
Avula said the Virginia still is expected to move into Phase 2 of vaccination by April 18.
The Eastern Shore entered Phase 2 earlier this month.
“That doesn’t mean that you will be able to get vaccinated within 24 hours; it doesn’t even really mean that you’ll be able to make an appointment, necessarily, within 24 hours,” he said in a Friday briefing.
The Johnson & Johnson shortage — and now the pause in using the vaccine — could in particular affect the state’s efforts to vaccinate college students before they leave campus for the summer.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work with our institutions of higher education to set up and sequence the vaccination clinics for them,” Avula said.
Around 72,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines planned to be given this week in Virginia were postponed, impacting 30 events, Avula said.
Still, that’s only around 15% of vaccines to be administered this week.
Doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines coming to Virginia have been fairly consistent week to week, Avula said. This week, the state was to receive 117,000 first doses and 140,000 second doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 86,000 first doses and 82,000 second doses of the Moderna vaccine.
The VDH asked local health districts, health care providers, and pharmacy partners “to try to open up appointments as far in advance as possible,” ideally a three- to four-week “runway of appointments,” Avula said Friday, adding, “…The more appointments we have open, when we get to April 18, the more people can be navigated into those open appointments.”
The website vaccinate.virginia.gov still is the “front door” to finding a vaccine appointment for Virginia residents, who then will be directed to vaccinefinder.org, a website set up by the CDC, to find available appointments at clinics, pharmacies, and other locations, Avula said.
A person can enter a ZIP code and a range of miles at vaccinefinder.org and get a list of locations with vaccines available.
The state vaccination call center, 877-829-4682 (877-VAX-IN-VA), also is still available to assist residents.