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Beshear Temporarily Halts Use Of Johnson & Johnson Vaccine In Kentucky

Volunteers at LouVax prepare vaccines to be administered.
Volunteers at LouVax prepare vaccines to be administered.

Gov. Andy Beshear is temporarily halting use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Kentucky. The governor said he is following a recommendation from the CDC after the agency found cases of blood clotting in six women. More than 6.8 million people have received the shot nationwide since it was approved in February. 

“It looks like the risk here is very, very small versus the really significant risk of being harmed by COVID,” Beshear said during a Tuesday press conference, adding that he believes the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be “back in the fold soon.”

Beshear said he learned on a call Tuesday morning with federal health officials that the suspension should last a few days to a week. The CDC will use the time to find out if there are any more cases of the rare but serious side effect, and to advise health care providers on how to treat the blood-clotting condition, he said.

In the meantime, Beshear urged Kentuckians whose appointments were canceled because of the decision to sign up for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead

“Get a vaccine,” he said. “[It’s] incredibly important during this period of time, and we cannot let this slow us down.”

The governor said the state has enough supply of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to fill the need. Health officials say the Johnson & Johnson vaccines make up less than 5% of the doses received statewide. 

As of April 12, Kentucky had received 145,500 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but not all of them have been used. The state received its biggest shipment on April 5: 65,300 doses.

More than 1.5 million Kentuckians have gotten at least a first dose of a vaccine, Beshear said on Monday. He is aiming to reach 2.5 million in the state with at least a first dose within four to six weeks.

For those who have already gotten the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Beshear said “there’s likely no reason to worry.” The possible side effect is extremely rare, with the chance of it occurring being less than one in a million, based on current data from the CDC.

By contrast, the chances of dying from COVID-19 are one in 588, according to Beshear. The chances of developing a blood clot from COVID-19 are also quite high, according to one study.

Hormonal birth control medications may also carry a risk of blood clots, of up to 20 in 10,000 women in a given year — a risk many times that posed by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the available data.

Still, Kentucky Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack advised people who are less than three weeks out from their dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to tell their health care provider if they have severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath, as these could be signs of the blood-clotting condition.

The pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccinations also means a pause in vaccinating some of the vulnerable populations the state has been using the one-shot formula for: people who are unhoused and people who are incarcerated.

Beshear said the state will wait to find out how long the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be suspended before looking for alternative vaccines for people in jails and prisons. He said the state would figure out alternatives  if the pause lasts “more than three or four days.” 

Meanwhile, officials are worried that the pause may hamper efforts health officials are making to help people overcome vaccine hesitancy.

“I am concerned that, if there are not more cases out there [of blood clotting], that the hesitancy coming out of the pause could potentially outweigh the need for it,” Beshear said. “But this is how they work. This is how the CDC and the FDA work.”

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.