‘Safety first’: After pausing use of J&J vaccine, health leaders urge the public to fill appointments for other vaccines

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) – Tennessee and Virginia’s departments of health announced Tuesday they will pause administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The move comes amid a federal review of rare blood clotting complications potentially linked to the shot.

CDC and FDA officials say they are investigating after six people in the U.S. developed blood clots within two weeks of getting their dose. According to the FDA, 6.8 million people in the US have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In the meantime, health leaders in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia still want the public to feel confident getting vaccinated.

“The complication that they’ve described is very, very rare. Literally one in a million is what they’ve described so far. And I think it’s wise that they continue to focus on the safety of the vaccine before we release any more of it,” said Dr. Stephen May, medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

Mass vaccination events won’t happen as planned following the federal recommendation to pause administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Sullivan County’s health department had 10,000 doses of the J&J shot to give at a three-day event set to begin on Wednesday.

“We were really excited. And a lot of work had gone into preparing for this mass event. But safety first,” said May.

Sullivan County has 8,000 first doses of Pfizer to administer instead, and the event has been moved from Bristol Motor Speedway to Whitetop Creek Park.

Dr. May said the 10,000 J&J doses will not expire until June and will be put into storage while the CDC and FDA complete their investigation.

“These pauses are not unheard of. We know it’s happened with some vaccines in Europe. We want to be absolutely sure that we’re safe. But that doesn’t mean that we stop vaccination,” he said.

Health leaders believe the federal oversight practices should increase confidence in vaccine safety.

“I know the headline could be concerning for many people as they hear this information,” said Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift. “But I just want to reiterate, this is actually our system at work…so this oversight by the FDA and CDC worked like it was supposed to. At the first hint of any correlation of this syndrome to vaccines, they’ve issued this pause.”

Ballad has been administering the Pfizer shot at its community vaccination centers. Swift urged community members to book appointments, and said currently around 50 percent of Ballad’s available appointments are being filled.

In Virginia, a mass vaccination event planned for this Saturday will no longer use its 1,000 J&J doses. Instead, the Mount Rogers Health District says first Pfizer doses will be given at Marion Senior High School.

Southwest Virginia health districts will store their J&J vaccines while they wait on further instruction from the CDC.

“Right now we do have enough Moderna and Pfizer to cover what we had already planned to do with J&J. And we will be working with the allocations that we have to meet the need of the public,” said Dr. Karen Shelton, medical director for the Mount Rogers, Cumberland Plateau, and LENOWISCO health districts.

The pausing of the J&J vaccine is also not a concern for the Northeast Regional Health Office when it comes to supply. Health departments for Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Unicoi, and Washington counties fall under the Northeast region.

“Local health departments are vaccinating with Moderna and Pfizer. Community partners such as pharmacies have been dispensing J&J vaccine. Our LHD PODs have enough vaccine to meet the current need using supplies on hand,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

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