Health Care

Vermont suspends Johnson & Johnson vaccinations this week in response to federal concerns

pharmacist filling syringe from vial
The FDA announced Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be paused due to blood clotting concerns. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Updated at 4:58 p.m.

The state of Vermont suspended Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics through the end of the week, Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday morning. The state made the decision “out of an abundance of caution,” Scott said, after federal health agencies recommended pausing use of the single-dose Covid-19 vaccine.

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement earlier Tuesday morning that the one-dose vaccine could be linked to rare cases of blood clotting. Of the roughly 7 million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, six are known to have experienced clotting — one of whom has died. 

At the governor’s twice-weekly press conference Tuesday, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said all Johnson & Johnson appointments in the state had been canceled through Friday. About 2,000 had been scheduled for Tuesday and another 2,000 through the end of the week.

“If you are one of the people that were scheduled for today and this week, we will have people reaching out to you and rescheduling,” Smith said.

Scott said the move would not affect Vermont’s vaccine allocation for the next week because the state is expecting to receive more doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. 

The governor said he expected use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be “back on track” by the weekend. “We’re about four or five hours into this,” he said. “We don’t believe this is going to have a long-term impact. We’ll know more in the next day or two.”

Relative risk

State officials hastened to reassure Vermonters that the vaccination program was safe. 

Mark Levine, the state health commissioner, acknowledged that Tuesday’s news might be “unsettling” to some, particularly for those who had already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or were scheduled for a shot. But, he said, “think about that in comparison to the unfortunately tragic calculations we have in this country of your risk of being a death statistic from Covid, which is about one in 500.”

Levine emphasized that the temporary halt was a “safety signal” to allow experts to examine the information and arrive at recommendations. The blood clot complications are unusual compared to other blood clots, he said, so the additional time will allow experts to help health care providers identify complications and how to treat them.

All six cases identified so far have involved women ages 16 to 48 who began developing symptoms six to 14 days after receiving a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The cases involved rare blood clots in the brain and gut, Levine said.

“We need to learn if there’s something unique about these women, something that they may have in common, something we can all learn from,” he said.

Levine said that most women who have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are unlikely to be affected. “The majority of women who either got the vaccine well over a month ago, or just got mild symptoms one gets at the time of the vaccination itself, are not at risk,” he said.

[Get answers to frequently asked questions about the Johnson & Johnson suspension.]

‘Kick in the gut’

Earlier Tuesday morning, hospital officials scrambled to address the new federal guidance. 

Copley Hospital in Morrisville canceled 200 vaccination appointments scheduled that day for the Morrisville VFW after Levine advised it to do so, according to CEO Joe Woodin. 

“This really sets us back on our heels,” Woodin said, calling the news a “kick in the gut.” People “are going to be showing up mad,” he said.

Hospital officials sought to reach those who had signed up for the 10 a.m. clinic — Copley’s first using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — encouraging them to reschedule. 

According to data from the CDC, Vermont has received 21,800 doses of the vaccine since it was approved in February. Many clinics targeted for educators offered the single-dose shots. 

At an early Tuesday meeting, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital officials discussed concerns that the situation could make Vermonters more hesitant to get the vaccine, according to hospital spokesperson Laural Ruggles. 

The St. Johnsbury institution had offered a handful of Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics over the previous few weeks, she said, but currently had the doses on hand only for hospital and emergency room patients. Those vaccinations had been paused at least until Saturday, she said.

According to Ruggles, Vermonters should view the temporary halt as evidence that officials are working to ensure that vaccines are safe. “The system the country has in place to identify any kind of adverse effects is working,” she said. “The scientists are keeping an eye on this.”

CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, both of which offered Johnson & Johnson vaccines in some Vermont stores, said Tuesday that they had immediately stopped administering doses. 

According to a press release issued by Walgreens, the pharmacy is contacting people with Johnson & Johnson appointments to reschedule them for a dose from another manufacturer as supply allows. 

A CVS spokesperson told CNBC that the chain was still deciding how to handle people who had scheduled Johnson & Johnson appointments.

Kinney Drugs, the other pharmacy scheduling appointments outside the state system, is only offering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine at its store, according to a spokesperson. 

Cases declining, vaccines increasing

Vermont Covid cases declined about 23% over the past week compared to the week before, Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said during Tuesday’s press conference, and are expected to remain flat or decline in the coming weeks.

Those ages 20 to 29 continue to have the highest per capita case rate. Those numbers, however, dropped this week, Pieciak said.

Hospitalizations increased slightly — by about 6.4% — led by an uptick in cases among the unvaccinated older population in their 50s and 60s, according to Pieciak. Only three people have died so far in April, a month during which the state anticipated 10 to 20 deaths.

Last week, the state set a record by administering 11,000 vaccine doses in a single day, Pieciak said, up from the 8,000 to 9,000 doses typical of previous days.

About 48% of Vermonters 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, health department data show.

Scott called the Johnson & Johnson issue a “bump in the road” and said the state still expects to vaccinate more than 20,000 people next week.

“So think about that, how far we’ve come,” the governor said. “Three to four months ago we didn’t have a vaccine in place, and today we have almost half of those 16 and over getting their first vaccinations, so we should be proud of what we’re doing.”

Burlington beachgoers

At Tuesday’s press conference, officials also addressed reports of partiers at Burlington’s North Beach over the weekend.

Levine called the situation disappointing, given the “blatant disregard for the rules” exhibited by those in attendance.

“This kind of behavior, it’s just not OK right now, not by young people, not by middle-aged or older adults, not by anyone,” the health commissioner said.

According to Levine, Vermonters should get outside and protect their mental health — but not at the risk of spreading the virus. The state is moving toward reopening in the coming weeks, he said, and Vermonters need to protect each other in the meantime as more people get vaccinated.

Levine listed a number of reasons younger Vermonters should get vaccinated: protecting against rare but severe coronavirus complications, preventing long Covid, rejoining school and work, seeing loved ones freely, and potentially receiving a creemee coupon at vaccine sites in the near future.

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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