Johnson & Johnson vaccine poised to un-pause soon. Will NYers get the shot? What to know

David Robinson
New York State Team

After painstakingly convincing an immigrant enclave in New York that Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective, advocates last week helped vaccinate 500 people in a small but important step towards ending the pandemic.

But within hours, the advocacy group, Neighbors Link, was scrambling to regain its hard-earned trust among the mid-Hudson Valley immigrant community, as health officials suddenly paused Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine due to it potentially causing rare but dangerous blood clots.

“We’ll have to really do some more community education to get people comfortable enough again to get the shot,” Neighbors Link Executive Director Carola Bracco said Monday.

The dire outreach is unfolding nationally as authorities are poised to reintroduce Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, a key tool in reaching communities of color, college students and others benefiting from its one-shot regimen as opposed to the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Johnson & Johnson, or J&J, pause could be lifted as early as Friday, with health officials potentially recommending a warning or restrictions related to the rare blood clots, which were reported in seven of the 7.2 million Americans who received the shot so far.

So far, New York has administered 560,615 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, in late February, state health officials said Tuesday.

In contrast, the number of doses administered statewide for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines totaled about 7.1 million and 5.9 million, respectively. The FDA granted both vaccines emergency use authorization in December.

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Where NY vaccines struggled before J&J pause

Sonam Lama of Garrsion gets the Moderna vaccine from Doug at the Claudio Marzollo Community Center in Garrison April 13, 2021.

The J&J pause, in many ways, complicated the push to overcome existing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among a diverse mix of New Yorkers, spanning from mostly white Republicans awash in politically driven misinformation to Blacks distrustful of America’s history of racism.

“Vaccine hesitancy isn’t one thing; It manifests itself in many different forms,” said Dr. Rishi Goyal, co-lead of the Columbia World Projects’ push to boost COVID vaccine confidence.

Indeed, signs of New York’s vaccination struggles surfaced well before the pause.

Vaccination rates in New York’s rural towns and communities of color, for example, lagged mostly white suburban neighborhoods, prompting authorities to launch targeted vaccine clinics and advertising campaigns to address the disparity.

Further, just 60% of nursing home workers, many of them Black and Latino, have been vaccinated, despite easy access to the shots.

Maryellen Zackaroff of Brewster gets the Moderna vaccine from nurse Rebeca Garcia at the Claudio Marzollo Community Center in Garrison April 13, 2021.

Meanwhile, more than 8.4 million New Yorkers, or 42% of the population, had received at least one COVID vaccine dose as of Tuesday, with the pace of getting shots in arms ramping up significantly in recent weeks amid rising vaccine supplies.

But while New York and other states recently opened vaccination eligibility to those 16 and older, health experts have voiced concerns of vaccines languishing on shelves if outreach fails to reach those still unconvinced about the safety and necessity of getting shots.

New York ranked 12th last week among states in share of people receiving at least one shot.

“Early adopters were getting the vaccine wherever they could, but now we’re coming to the point where it’s going to be the hard sell,” said Elisa Sobo, a medical anthropology professor at San Diego State University.

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Why J&J pause threatens NY progress

The FDA and CDC are recommending a pause on the Johnson 
& Johnson COVID vaccine after six women developed rare blood clots.

Reports of severe life-threatening side effects from vaccines, however rare, pose a unique risk of fanning the hesitancy flames across all groups, experts said.

The blood clots linked to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine have so far been detected in just six of the vaccine's 7 million recipients, all women between the ages of 18 and 48. 

“It paints a picture in peoples’ minds of something drastic, and yet if you look at the risk of getting COVID-19 while unvaccinated it’s so much higher,” Goyal said.

New York, for example, has seen about 2 million coronavirus cases, including more than 51,600 deaths, since the pandemic began last spring, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

In contrast, of the more than 75 million Americans fully vaccinated as of mid-April, only about 6,000 coronavirus infections were reported, including 74 deaths, of which nine were unrelated to the virus, federal data show.

“It’s like plane crashes and car crashes,” Goyal added. “People worry about dying in a plane crash, but they’re much more likely to die in a car crash.”

Further, more than 211 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered nationally through Monday, federal data show, and there were 3,486 reports of death among people who received the vaccines.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration doctors reviewed each case report of death.

“A review of available clinical information including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records revealed no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths,” CDC says.

Still, vaccine disinformation spreading like wildfire over social media and the internet threatens to capitalize on the Johnson & Johnson pause to undermine confidence in COVID vaccines overall, experts said.

“It often starts in a personal and ideological defense and then people pick and choose the kind of data that supports it,” Goyal said.

“If somebody is concerned about safety and side effects, we have to figure out ways to dialogue with them directly,” he added, calling for more door-to-door vaccination efforts and other community outreach campaigns.

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud