Pause ‘out of an abundance of caution’ will last through Friday
By Polly Mikula
UPDATE: Thursday, April 15:
Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics cancelled through Friday, April 23
State officials announced Thursday that Vermont will follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and extend the pause on the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine for an additional week. The federal pause is in place to allow the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices the time it needs to gather more data about reported side effects. The committee will meet again next week.
This means that all Vermont Johnson & Johnson appointments will be cancelled through Friday, April 23. Anyone who had an appointment cancelled through the state registration system should call the Health Department at 855-722-7878. The department is working hard to open as many additional appointments as possible for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and expects everyone impacted by this pause will be able to get an appointment by the end of April.
People who made appointments with CVS or Walgreens should follow the pharmacies’ instructions about rescheduling.
All two-dose (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccine appointments will continue as previously scheduled.
The state of Vermont is suspending Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics, as of Tuesday morning, April 13. “This was a surprise to us, too,” Governor Phil Scott said at the press conference that afternoon.
“Following CDC and FDA recommendations, out of an abundance of caution, Vermont is suspending today’s J&J clinics. All those who were scheduled today are being reached out to directly to reschedule appointments,” Gov. Phil Scott tweeted at 10 a.m. announcing the change.
Secretary Mike Smith clarified that the pause would last through Friday, April 16.
The FDA called for suspending J&J after six women age 18-48 who received the vaccine experienced blood clotting 6-13 days after vaccination. One person died. Thus far, nearly 7 million Americans have received the J&J vaccine.
“It’s important to keep this in perspective,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D. “These cases are very rare.” The odds of getting a blood clot from the vaccine is about one in a million, whereas the odds of dying from Covid-19 in America is one in 500, according to Levine.
“I want to emphasize that we, the CDC, and the FDA are all committed to vaccine safety and transparency every step of the way and that is why these actions have been taken and acted on so rapidly,” said Levine.
“The hope is that this will be a confidence building change not a confidence eroding change, where people will have even more respect for the process it’s gone through… the abundance of caution and safety concerns,” he added.
According to Smith, there were 2,000 J&J appointments scheduled for Tuesday and 2,000 more Wednesday through Friday. Additionally about 1,800 more J&J appointments are scheduled beyond Friday, he said.
Scott said that while the state will not receive any allocations of the J&J vaccine this week, its increased allocations of Moderna and Pfizer are expected to be sufficient to vaccinate all those with state-sponsored appointments through Friday. Those with appointments through the federal pharmacy program will also need to reschedule, though state officials said they did not know what procedure that would follow.
“If you are one of the people that were scheduled for today or this week we will have people reaching out to you and rescheduling with a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine,” Smith said. “We’re adding more clinics and more space available to accommodate as necessary.”
Smith also said that rescheduling a J&J vaccine appointment for a later date “once the precautions are lifted,” was also an option.
“I imagine that by this weekend we’ll be back on track,” said Scott. “We all want the J&J vaccine back and [the FDA and CDC] emphasized these incidents are extremely rare and this pause is likely to be a matter of days not weeks… just to be sure they get this right.”
On Friday, the state is expecting an update to the federal recommendations after the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has time to review the six cases.
Levine said he expects one of two scenarios are likely after the review: Either all precautions will be lifted for J&J usage because no specific threat was found based on conditions, or a certain population would be advised against taking that vaccine. “I don’t know what that population will be —it could be women of child-bearing age or taking a certain birth control… we don’t know until their study is complete.”
According to data from the CDC, Vermont has received 21,800 doses of the vaccine since it was approved in February. Many clinics in Vermont targeted for educators offered the single-dose shots. Governor Phil Scott and First Lady Diana McTeague Scott also received J&J doses on April 5.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the most part is shown to be safe and effective and I myself was happy to get it last week,” Scott said.
“We don’t believe this is going to have a long term impact,” Scott said of the pause in J&J vaccine allocations, adding that he was confident that the state could still hit the vaccination rates indicated in the Vermont Forward plan to reopen the state that he laid out last Tuesday. “We’re going to move forward with the plan as we’ve laid out.”
“I know this is a bump in the road,” Scott said concluding the press conference, April 13. “But even without the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we’ll still vaccinate over 20,000 people this next week… we should be proud of that. And I believe J&J will be back online sooner rather than later.”
Progress on vaccinations
“I’m happy to report that almost 50% of Vermonters have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine,” Smith said. “For those age 30 and older, we opened up registration yesterday and as of this morning more than 15,000 Vermonters in that age group have made appointments,” he said.
The state has also made progress closing the gap in vaccination rates for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) with over 6,000 more Vermonters in that sector making appointments over the past two weeks, said Smith.
In total, Vermont has vaccinated 264,344 Vermonters, with 90,136 receiving a first dose and 174,208 receiving both doses for full protection.
Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said the trends for the state vaccination rates and Covid counts look promising. “According to the CDC, Vermont continues to be one of the states with the highest percentages of its 65 and older population that has started or completed vaccination standing at 91.6% today,” Pieciak said Tuesday. “We also continue to rank fourth in terms of overall doses administered and seventh for the percent of our population that is fully vaccinated.”
Over the past week, the state saw Covid-19 “cases down in almost every age category but we’ve seen the greatest decrease among those 20 to 29-year-olds (who have previously been driving our case growth in Vermont) with their rates falling 11% over this past week,” said Pieciak.
The forecast for Covid-19 positivity now calls for a flattening or decreasing trajectory, depending on the modeling used, he added. “Over the past 30 days Vermont leads the country in terms of per capita testing,” Pieciak continued. “Indicating that here in Vermont we are identifying the cases that are in our communities. Testing continues to be critical as we work to control the virus until everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” he said.
According to the newest Census Bureau survey, nearly 85% of Vermonters say they will “definitely” or “probably” get the vaccine “and that’s among people who are not yet vaccinated,” Pieciak noted, which bucks the theory that younger residents will be harder to vaccinate — at least at rates that meet the state’s targets for achieving herd immunity. “Vermont ranks the highest in the country on that survey,” Pieciak said. “And that’s a very hopeful indicator.”