Washington state health experts echo call to resume administering Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine

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Federal regulators lifted the pause in administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Friday night. (Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press / TNS)

Washington state health experts echoed federal advisers and regulators on Friday in calling to resume the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, after an 11-day pause in response to 15 women developing blood clots out of nearly 8 million people who received the vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration announced the recommended pause was lifted, shortly after an advisory panel to the CDC said the shots should resume.

It was unclear when the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shots could resume in Washington.

U.S. to resume J&J COVID vaccinations despite rare clot risk

The state Department of Health says it wouldn’t have any new information until after the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup met Friday evening to review restarting Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. That group could recommend that Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California follow the federal guidance.

But health experts and officials were quick to promote the end of the federally recommended Johnson & Johnson pause.

“This is a very important vaccine and we need all of the vaccines that we have available to use for us to be able stop this pandemic,” Deborah Fuller, a vaccine expert at the University of Washington, said in a news conference Friday afternoon.

The pause in Washington came just two days before the state opened vaccine eligibility to everyone age 16 and older, and clinics that planned to administer Johnson & Johnson either canceled appointments or switched to the other two vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, both of which require two doses.

The one-dose shot accounts for a significantly smaller portion of the state’s vaccine allocation, Michele Roberts, acting assistant health secretary, said earlier this week in a DOH briefing. The state expects to receive about 4,300 Johnson & Johnson doses in early May.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said Friday the CDC advisory panel had made it clear that the benefits of resuming vaccination with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine outweighed the risks to individuals and for the entire U.S. population. 

Citing modeling over the next 6 months that was shared with the advisory panel, Duchin said the country could expect to see between 26-46 cases of the rare blood clots associated with the vaccine. During that same time period, the vaccine is projected to prevent between 600 and 1,400 COVID-19 deaths, depending on uptake and transmission. 

“The benefits clearly outweigh the risks, but people need to be able to understand the risk and make a choice about what vaccine they prefer and what is best for their particular situation,” Duchin said. 

Duchin said rising case counts of COVID-19 in King County, which are being driven by concerning coronavirus variants, heightened the risk of waiting for a preferred vaccine.

“With the outbreak increasing, you have to weigh your preferences with the risk and benefit of getting vaccinated now with the risk of waiting,” Duchin said, adding that for people who live in crowded places or work in high risk jobs the best option “is to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.” 

The advisory panel to the CDC said that a warning should be included for women and health providers about the risk of blood clots. Of those who developed a rare type of blood clot, all were women and most were under 50. Fuller compared the warning to one for people with egg allergies when receiving the flu vaccine, which has a small risk of causing an allergic reaction.

Duchin said vaccine providers will supply those accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with a warning and also practical information about symptoms associated with the rare blood clot syndrome, which include shortness of breath, chest pain, leg swelling, persistent abdominal pain, and neurological symptoms such as blurred vision or severe and ongoing headaches.

“The headache associated with this syndrome is different. It typically occurs later, on day six … and tends to persist and be more severe,” Duchin said, encouraging people to keep track of any post-vaccination symptoms. “If you have this rare syndrome, getting it identified, diagnosed and treated quickly is helpful.”

Dr. Seth Cohen, medical director for infection prevention at the University of Washington Medical Center, said he wasn’t aware of any UW patients who had developed any symptoms.

In Washington state, about 2.05 million people are fully vaccinated, according to DOH.

Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or pcornwell@seattletimes.com; .
Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or ebush@seattletimes.com; .