Connecticut’s public health department on Tuesday urged medical providers to halt use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine across the state, following recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
The federal agencies encouraged states to pause use of the vaccine after six cases of rare blood clotting were reported among women who received the shot. The women were between the ages of 18 and 48; symptoms occurred six to 13 days after vaccination.
Gov. Ned Lamont and state health officials stressed that the condition was extremely rare and that while the matter is under investigation, there is not yet a clear correlation between the vaccine and the clotting issue.
“There have been six severe side effects out of 6.8 million J&J doses administered in the United States over the last many months. That’s a one-in-a-million chance of having that type of a severe side effect,” Lamont said. “That’s somewhere in the area of getting struck by lightning, or probably a higher chance of driving to the vaccination site and getting into an accident.”
Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting public health commissioner, said no cases of the clotting issue have been reported in Connecticut.
“Nationally, 6.8 million – almost 7 million – doses of J&J have been administered with only the six cases being reported. So that’s very reassuring as to the rarity of this potential complication,” Gifford said. “And I should emphasize that although there’s an association and the FDA and CDC are doing this investigation, we don’t know for sure about the relationship between these events and the J&J vaccine.”
The clots that are being studied are a rare form that manifest in the brain – known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST – and should not be treated with heparin, a blood thinner that is often used to treat blood clots, federal health officials said. The clotting issue was not reported in connection with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
“All the things that we do in health care carry some risks, whether you have a procedure, a surgery, or take a medication. We weigh the benefits and risks,” Gifford said. “We certainly know there are tremendous benefits to these vaccines. And there are certainly risks of getting COVID, getting hospitalized, or even dying from COVID. So those things need to be kept in mind as well.”
Connecticut health officials said they were ceasing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “for the time being while the FDA and CDC complete their review.” The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday.
About 100,000 state residents have received the J&J shot with no reported serious adverse events, the health department said Tuesday. More than 120,000 J&J doses have been allocated to Connecticut so far — not including federal supply sent to pharmacies — including 6,400 this week, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Another 34,800 doses have been sent to federally qualified health centers in the state.
State officials asked providers who were planning to hold clinics using the vaccine this week to delay the clinics or offer an alternative shot. Providers are encouraged to contact all patients who were scheduled to receive a J&J vaccine to let them know their appointments will be rescheduled.
“DPH will work with providers to minimize the disruptions from this announcement in the near-term to the extent possible, but we anticipate that some cancellations will occur,” the health department said in a statement. “The CDC, FDA and Connecticut DPH all take vaccine safety extremely seriously. Although the reported complications are extremely rare, we will await the results of the investigation before proceeding with further use of the J&J vaccine.”
Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the FDA, said Tuesday that the pause was expected to last only “a matter of days,” depending on “what we learn in the next few days.”
Connecticut has used the vaccine to reach people where a single shot has strategic advantages — in its recent deployment of 35 mobile vans to cities and at-risk areas, for example. Pop-up clinics have also utilized the vaccine, along with providers who immunize new nursing home residents and staff.
In a recent memo to administrators at Connecticut’s 27 acute-care hospitals, state officials suggested that patients who are being discharged to nursing homes be vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot. Hospitals were able to request additional supply of the J&J vaccine to facilitate the effort.
State officials had anticipated that the number of J&J doses Connecticut receives would drop in the coming weeks due to manufacturing difficulties, but they vowed as recently as Monday that the state’s efforts to reach people in at-risk areas would continue unabated.
On Tuesday, the health department said a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been making rounds in Connecticut cities, most recently in New Britain, would modify its schedule and offer the Pfizer or Moderna shots instead of Johnson & Johnson. Several pharmacies that were administering the J&J vaccine will cancel their appointments.
Mobile units run by Griffin Hospital, which currently use the J&J vaccine, canceled their clinics Tuesday. In the future, state leaders said the mobile units will switch over to Pfizer or Moderna shots, though they did not yet have a strategy for scheduling second-dose appointments.
“We know that people will need a second dose, and they’ll get their card with the date that they need their second dose. Today, we may not be able to schedule that second appointment,” Gifford said. “The goal will be to get the second appointment scheduled at the time of the first. But today and possibly tomorrow, we’re going to have to work through some of those glitches.”
Officials are trying to arrange a round of second-dose shots through the FEMA trailer.
“We’re going to make every effort to have the [mobile] units administer the second dose,” Gifford said, “but we’re not quite sure yet whether we’ll be able to do that in all cases.”
DOC pauses vaccinations for those held in pretrial
The state Department of Correction had planned on administering the single-shot J&J vaccine to many of those who are held pretrial in Connecticut jails. Because turnover in the jails is higher than in the state’s prisons, officials said a single shot would have been less complicated than scheduling follow-up inoculations weeks after the first doses, potentially after people had already been released. The effort is on hold for now.
No incarcerated individuals have been given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for the department. So far, they all have received the Moderna shot.
As of Monday, the DOC had vaccinated 4,362 incarcerated people and 2,697 correctional staff. Those figures equate to roughly 49% of the incarcerated population and 50% of correctional staff. Nearly 4,400 inmates have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic. Twenty-seven currently have COVID and are showing symptoms, and 51 are asymptomatic.
Banevicius said the DOC continues to combat vaccine hesitancy through education. The department has launched a number of initiatives to ensure staff and inmates can make an informed decision, including creating informational web pages on the vaccines, posting flyers in correctional facilities’ housing units and passing out leaflets to incarcerated people, playing videos on vaccine facts within all prisons and jails, and creating a video of Commissioner Angel Quiros and other DOC staff members getting the shot and speaking about the importance of vaccination.
Hartford HealthCare halts use of J&J
Hartford HealthCare said Tuesday that it will stop administering the J&J vaccine immediately. As of Tuesday morning, the health system had vaccinated 18,857 people using the J&J shot.
“We have adjusted our vaccine distribution in every one of our vaccine clinics to provide only Pfizer and Moderna products,” said Dr. James Cardon, Hartford HealthCare’s Chief Clinical Integration Officer. “As always, safety is our first priority, and we immediately followed the guidance of federal health agencies while the health concerns with J&J are being thoroughly investigated.”
Anyone who has received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine who develops a severe headache, leg pain, abdominal pain or shortness of breath within three weeks of getting the shot is asked to contact their health care provider.
“If you’ve received the J&J vaccine more than two weeks ago, like me, you can be reassured that these rare complications – they occurred between six and 13 days after vaccine administration,” Gifford said. “So if it’s been more than a couple of weeks since you got your J&J vaccine, you can be even more comfortable that this does not implicate your particular vaccine. If you’re somebody who received the J&J vaccine in the last couple of weeks, you can also be comfortable that this is a very, very rare event.”
CT Mirror reporters Kelan Lyons and Kasturi Pananjady contributed to this story.