How West Michigan health departments are responding to J&J pause

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The federal government’s recommendation to “pause” using the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is having an impact on vaccination clinics across West Michigan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended the pause out of an abundance of caution after six women reported potentially dangerous blood clots that occurred six to 13 days after vaccination.

Following suit, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has told clinics to stop using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for now.

“More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the U.S., and these adverse events appear to be extremely rare. However, out of an abundance of caution, we are following recommendations from FDA and CDC and pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Michigan,” Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a Tuesday statement. “As we learn more about this from our federal partners, we will update vaccine providers and Michiganders across the state. We encourage everyone to continue making appointments to be vaccinated with the safe and effective Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at this time. These vaccines are the way we are going to end this pandemic as quickly as possible and move toward a sense of normalcy.” 

SPECTRUM HEALTH

Federal health experts will now look into the reports of blood clots, determine whether they were in fact the result of the vaccine and then decide how to move forward.

“How long this is going to take is anybody’s guess,” Spectrum Health infectious disease physician Dr. Liam Sullivan said during a Tuesday media briefing. “They’re airing on the side of safety, and that’s a good thing.”

But he also reminded millions of doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the U.S. without any serious problems.

In fact, Sullivan himself got the shot in December as a participant in J&J’s clinical trial. He said he had some of the common side effects like body aches just after getting it, but that after that he felt good and that he has so far not contracted COVID-19.

Sullivan said that clots — which he stressed have so far not been tied to the vaccine — generally appear within a couple weeks after getting the shot. He said people who just got the shot should keep an eye out for problems like severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain or shortness of breath, but that those who got it outside that two-week window are likely in the clear.

He also emphasized the pause indicates federal safety checks on the vaccines are working.

“I think this is a good signal that FDA and CDC are going to look at this with close scrutiny and investigate this,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll be able to use this vaccine going forward, but we just have to wait and see what they’re going to find. There’s a lot of unanswered questions right now and I think it’s just sort of a waiting game.”

Spectrum Health said Tuesday that 4,391 of the 300,000 vaccines it has administered so far were Johnson & Johnson.

Because none of its clinics are exclusively for J&J, Spectrum has not had to cancel any. For now, its J&J doses will remain in storage. Sullivan also pointed out that J&J doses are easy to store since they don’t require as cold temperatures as the Pfizer and Moderna shots.

Sullivan urged people to still sign up to get vaccinated, since both the Pfizer and Moderna are still cranking out doses and the data shows they are safe and very effective.

ALLEGAN COUNTY

The Allegan County Health Department says it will redistribute its Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to cover J&J appointments, including for a Sunday clinic and mobile clinics.

“As cases and hospitalizations in Allegan County individuals continue to increase, we encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they have the opportunity to do so. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still available for those who want the vaccine,” Allegan County Medical Director Richard Tooker said in a statement.

So far, Allegan County has given out 1,170 J&J vaccines.

BERRIEN COUNTY

The Berrien County Health Department says the J&J clinic scheduled for Thursday will now be using the Moderna vaccine with a second dose date of Thursday, May 13. Those who have scheduled appointments for Thursday’s clinic will be contacted by BCHD.

CALHOUN COUNTY

After the announcement Tuesday morning, the Calhoun County Public Health Department said it paused the use of the J&J vaccine. Instead, it will be using the Pfizer vaccine at the vaccination clinic at Albion College’s Dow Center Tuesday.

IONIA COUNTY

The Ionia County Health Department said about 600 people were affected by the pause. It had a J&J mass vaccination clinic scheduled for Thursday and had to switch to Moderna.

“Notifying everyone beforehand will be a challenge,” Health Officer Ken Bowen said in an email to News 8.

The health department is trying to reach everyone affected, but those who do not want Moderna can call the health department themselves to cancel their appointment.

KALAMAZOO COUNTY

The Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services Department is pausing all J&J vaccine clinics. The department is working to reschedule those clinics with either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Those who had appointments for the J&J vaccine will be contacted to reschedule as soon as possible.

There have been 4,015 doses of J&J administered throughout the county, the department said in a Tuesday release.

Health Officer Jim Rutherford says the county has not seen the rare reaction the FDA is investigating. 

“We’ve had no side effects as it relates to Johnson & Johnson administration within our community, so I’m hopeful that they figure this out that they’re able to put the J&J product back on line,” Rutherford said.   

Thousands of doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been allocated to colleges across the state. The simplicity of administering the single dose is seen as ideal for campuses. 

As daily case numbers spike across the state, Rutherford says vaccinating younger populations is crucial, especially with variants like the B.1.1.7., which has become common. 

“That spreads faster and it can be more significant for younger people, so most of the hospitalizations that we encounter right now in both health systems are between 20- to 40-year-olds that have not been vaccinated,” Rutherford said. 

At Western Michigan University, J&J clinics scheduled to be held this week will instead use Pfizer doses. People who signed up should be prepared to return in 21 days to get their second shot. If that’s not viable, they’re asked to cancel their appointment online so the shot can go to someone else.

The clinics will be held at the Student Recreation Center from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday and from 8 a.m. to noon Thursday.

OTTAWA COUNTY

The Ottawa County Department of Public Health said it had canceled all of its J&J usage for now. That will affect the deployment of strike groups to deliver 225 doses to people with access barriers. Health officials may decide to give different brands to those with access barriers, but that decision is still being made.

The health department was also planning to give 1,700 J&J doses to Grand Valley State University students. It had not intended to shift that clinic to a different brand because students may leave campus before it’s time to get their second shot, but GVSU said later in the day that Metro Health – University of Michigan Health was providing 1,700 Pfizer doses for a Friday clinic.

“We have notified our vaccination partners and healthcare providers to increase situational awareness,” Health Officer Lisa Stefanovsky said in a statement. “Ottawa County COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing, so we encourage everyone to continue to pursue COVID-19 vaccination opportunities of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine that are still available.”

For now, Ottawa County will keep its 1,925 Johnson & Johnson doses safely in storage until it gets the federal greenlight to use them. Their expiration dates are June 21 and June 23.

Van Buren County

The Van Buren/Cass District Health Department is pausing all use of the J&J vaccine. Their clinic at Covert Fire Department in Covert scheduled for April 16 and the clinic at Midwest Energy & Communications in Cassopolis scheduled for April 17 will both go as scheduled, and will be using the Moderna vaccine.

Second dose clinics have now been scheduled for May 21 at Covert Fire Department and for May 22 at Midwest Energy & Communications.

Appointment are still available for those two clinics, and residents can schedule a time to get the vaccine at the department’s website.