Johnson & Johnson vaccine paused in Vermont, delaying hundreds of appointments

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FILE — In this March 31, 2021, file photo, a nurse fills a syringe with Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center, in Uniondale, N.Y. U.S. health regulators on Tuesday, April 13, is recommending a “pause” in using the vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

MONTPELIER – Following recommendations from federal health officials, Vermont has paused use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to extremely rare cases of blood clots found in 6 of the 6.8 million people who have received it.

There were roughly 2,000 Johnson & Johnson appointments scheduled throughout Vermont on Tuesday, and an additional 2,000 scheduled later this week. All have been postponed.

At Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing, Vermont officials said the move was made “out of an abundance of caution.” Gov. Phil Scott said the recommendation initially came as a surprise, but after hearing from Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top health officials during his weekly call with the Biden Administration, his concerns were somewhat alleviated.

“They’re doing this out of an abundance of caution, I have complete confidence in what we’re doing,” Scott said. “I believe they will have recommendations within the next couple of days.”

The FDA and CDC are scheduled to convene on Wednesday and develop further recommendations for providers, so we will soon know the fate of roughly 1800 appointments scheduled beyond Friday.

The six patients in question ranged from age 16 to 48, and all of them were women. Their blood clots were in unusual places, away from the legs and lungs and sometimes involving the brain.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said symptoms of the clots such as a severe headache wouldn’t appear in the immediate aftermath of receiving the vaccine, nor would they be likely to appear a month after. He said there’s a specific time window you should be looking out for.

“It’s really the people who have had symptoms begin in the couple weeks after their dose – as I noted, it was 6 to 13 days for these cases,” Dr. Levine said. “That would obviously be a more delayed and much more severe headache if you were to get symptoms related to the clot in the brain.”

Dr. Levine said there haven’t been any reports of severe symptoms as a result of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Vermont, just several complaints of benign or non-serious symptoms that have also been reported with the other available vaccines.

Although these side effects are extremely rare, the FDA and CDC recommend that people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the past month who develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider.

“We understand this news may be unsettling, but people should not be alarmed about overall vaccine safety, and hopefully the pause will be brief,” Dr. Levine said. “The extreme caution being taken in this case by the CDC and FDA is entirely consistent with their and Vermont’s commitment to vaccine safety and transparency every step of the way.”

Dr. Beth Kirkpatrick and Dr. Mary Cushman of UVM Medical Center offered their insight on Tuesday. Dr. Kirkpatrick is the director of UVM’s Vaccine Testing Center, and said there seems to be some similarities between what’s happening with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the rare blood clotting caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe.

“Believe me, there’s a lot of people trying to understand that right now, and particularly whether people are predisposed to this,” Kirkpatrick said. “Meaning there’s something in their genetic background or the medicine they’re taking that they can find, and then pull those people out of those that would be recommended to get the vaccine.”

Dr. Cushman is an international expert on blood clotting, and medical director of UVM’S Thrombosis and Hemostasis Program. She explained what the U.S. might be able to learn from Europe’s experience with AstraZeneca.

“The pause for the AstraZeneca vaccine seemed to me a little long, and I think at that time they were dealing with something that had never been described before,” Dr. Cushman said. “I think we can learn from that experience to help make a more rapid decision.”

As for what this means for Vermont’s plan to open up vaccine registration for everyone age 16 and over next week, right now Governor Scott sees this as a concern, but not a development that is likely to derail the state’s timeline.

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