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Monroe County Adjusts to Pause in Use of J&J COVID-19 Vaccine

Patti Singer

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, explains what the pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine means locally. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

News that six women who received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine reported severe but rare side effects may have some people rethinking a decision to get vaccinated.

Monroe County’s top doctor urged people to continue their plans to get either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine.

“The risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 is higher for your or a loved one than the risk of serious illness or death from the available vaccines,” Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, said April 13 during an online news conference.

Recent numbers support his statement.

On April 12, the number of people hospitalized in the Finger Lakes region surpassed 200 for the first time since late February. The 48 people in intensive care or on ventilators also were the most since early February.

New cases have exceeded 200 on most days so far this month. People in their teens, 20s and 30s are accounting for the bulk of new positive tests. The county’s rate was 3.1 percent as of April 12, again the highest it has been since late winter.

The Food and Drug Administration advised states to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after reports of a rare blood clot among six women within two weeks of them receiving the vaccine. The J&J vaccine had the advantage of being one dose, making it convenient for people with limited mobility.

Mendoza described the event as literally a 1-in-a-million occurrence as nearly 7 million of the vaccines had been administered in the United States and six clots were reported.

One woman died.

Mendoza said it’s not known whether any of the women would have developed the side effects if they had not received the J&J vaccine.

“While any loss of life or serious illness is concerning, we have to remember that this has occurred in an extremely minute percentage of people who have received the vaccine thus far.”

He urged people, particularly young people, to schedule a vaccine appointment. He said the setback for the J&J vaccine shouldn’t derail local progress in combating COVID-19 because there is enough of Pfizer and Moderna for those who want to be vaccinated.

“If we are going to move past this pandemic and return to a much greater degree of normalcy, we have to get vaccinated today. The longer we let this virus spread, the more time we give it to mutate and to grow. … You have the power to do something. Vaccines are by far the best tool we have to stop this pandemic in its tracks as quickly as we can.”

The Pfizer vaccine is for anyone 16 and older and the Moderna vaccine if for anyone 18 and older. Each requires two doses, three or four weeks apart. To schedule an appointment, go to Residents of most city ZIP codes can call (585) 753-5555.

In a separate conversation about the potential fallout of the pause on Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Linda Clark wanted to calm any anxiety among people who have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or are making appointments for the others.

“It is not something we’re seeing out of proportion to the population in general,” said Clark, the chief medical officer of Common Ground Health.

She has spoken to people who’ve had the J&J vaccine and to skeptics who say “I told you so.”

Clark, president of Black Physicians Network of Greater Rochester, said people need to put the incidents with the vaccine into perspective. She said blood clots can occur in other situations, and at a higher rate.

“I encourage our community to continue with plans to get vaccinated,” she said.

As of April 12, Blacks made up 7.9% of all residents in Monroe County aged 15 and older who had received at least one dose of vaccine. Latinos were 5.4% of all Monroe County residents who had received at least one dose.

Here is a selection of questions and answers from the news conference:

How does this affect the county’s plan to prioritize the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine for groups such as the homebound and incarcerated?

“We will have to find was to make it work with one of the other products. We’ve been rolling with the punches through this entire pandemic and this will be another challenge we have to think about. Our commitment to these populations has been unwavering and we’re not going to change our commitment.”

Would this news erode confidence in vaccines in general or cause panic if people had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

“This is a setback for the vaccine but I want to reassure the public that this is a sign the system is working. We were able to pull together a response to the news that came out and mobilize the community around the proper response.

“… Association doesn’t equal causation. Right now we have an association we need to understand and we need to see if the vaccine was in fact the cause. … Those who were vaccinated more than three weeks ago have nothing to worry about. … This is a 1-in-a-mllion side effect. It’s exceedingly rare. I want people to put that into perspective.”

What happens to the J&J doses already received?

“We have some left over and we will store it. We will keep the Johnson & Johnson on the shelf and wait for what to do next. … We didn’t have plans for Johnson & Johnson this week. This week was primarily a Pfizer and Moderna week. This does change some of our work later on this weekend, but we’ve been able to substitute that vaccine, so everything is going on as planned.

“… We will be switching from Johnson & Johnson to either Pfizer or Moderna. We’re in the process of organizing all that. We will do everything we can to notify people. I would encourage everyone to get Pfizer or Moderna, given that we don’t know how long it will be until Johnson & Johnson comes back.”