OKLAHOMA CITY — State health officials Tuesday stopped administering Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine “out of the abundance of caution” as federal regulators revealed rare blood clotting responses in six Americans.
State health officials, though, stressed that the risk of suffering an adverse reaction appears to be rare.
As of Tuesday, the state had administered 62,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but Keith Reed, the deputy commissioner of health, said they have no reason to believe that any Oklahoman has been adversely affected.
Health officials said six cases of blood clot complications have occurred amid the nearly 7 million administered injections given of the one-dose vaccine nationwide. All cases involved women 18 to 48 and symptoms occurred within two weeks of receiving the vaccine, state health officials said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to convene a meeting of its advisory committee on immunization practices Wednesday. Until the review is complete, the CDC has recommended halting use of the vaccine.
Oklahoma health officials said they weren’t notified ahead of time about the new complication, but plan to follow federal regulators’ advice and stop administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until more data on the potential adverse reactions is available.
“This pause will have minimal impact on Oklahoma’s vaccine effort,” Reed said. “Today’s action demonstrates the sensitivity of our monitoring system, and our committee to take any potential adverse reaction very seriously. After the administration of tens of millions of doses across the country, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine have been proven to be extremely safe.”
State health officials said Oklahomans who have already scheduled Johnson & Johnson vaccine appointments will be offered one of the two-dose alternatives — the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — or will be contacted to reschedule if a provider doesn’t have those vaccines available.
In their weekly media briefing, doctors with the Oklahoma State Medical Association, the state’s top physician advocacy group, said that while it’s important not to downplay the complication, it’s critical to keep it in perspective. Statistically, one out of every million people who has received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has suffered a blood clot. Nearly 7 million doses have already been administered nationwide.
Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID-19 officer with the University of Oklahoma, said of the six women who suffered clots that all had the onset of symptoms between six and 13 days. He said health officials are urging people to watch for complications for up to about three weeks after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
He said a low-grade fever, muscle aches and headaches are quite common after getting any of the three approved vaccines. But serious symptoms like severe headaches, confusion, common seizures and stroke-like symptoms warrant a call to a health professional for further evaluation.
“Just remember that this very rare complication of blood clots, they’re typically serious if they occur, but they’re very uncommon,” he said.
Bratzler said there’s actually a higher risk of suffering anaphylaxis from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — about four to five cases have been reported per million doses. That’s statistically higher than the risk of getting a blood clot from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“So the blood clot obviously may be more serious in the long run because we’re pretty good at treating anaphylaxis, but there can be side effects from any vaccine,” he said.
Aaron Wendelboe, an epidemiologist and professor at the OU College of Public Health, said Oklahomans are 100 times more likely to die in a car crash than to get a blood clot from the J&J vaccine. Also, an unvaccinated person in Oklahoma is 10 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than get in a car crash.
Dr. Lance Frye, the state commissioner of health, said he believed Tuesday’s pause would initially lead to hesitancy in accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if, or when, officials resume administering it.
“I know if, or when, it comes back on line it will be thoroughly vetted,” he said.
Dr. Jean Hausheer, past-president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the pause should speak volumes to the idea that there is good safety monitoring on all vaccines. That carefulness and caution on federal regulators’ part should encourage anyone who might still be hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Again, a lot of the hesitant people, they’re going to be hesitant no matter what,” she said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.