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Q&A: Dr. Joe Kanter On The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause And Your Safety

A vaccinator prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at Cypress Bayou Casino.
Phoebe Jones
A vaccinator prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at Cypress Bayou Casino. April 7, 2021.

State health officials have asked COVID-19 vaccine providers to pause the administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This morning the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control issued a joint statement recommending the pause and the agencies investigate the occurrence of a very rare but severe type of blood clot in some recipients of the vaccine.

Health reporter Bobbi-Jeanne Misick spoke with State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter to learn more about how the pause will affect vaccine rollout in Louisiana.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick: I’m interested in your understanding of the level of risk to folks in Louisiana who have already taken the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Dr. Joseph Kanter: Yeah, it's a great question. We are following the recommendation of the FDA and the CDC. We are hitting pause on all Johnson & Johnson administrations throughout the state of Louisiana to allow the FDA and the CDC to learn more about this. The risk to anyone who has already received the J&J vaccine is very, very small. There have been 85,261 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered in Louisiana. We have not had any reported cases of this type of blood clot from the Johnson & Johnson [vaccine]. Nationwide, the risk at the moment is truly one out of a million — six cases out of 6.8 million doses.

This is an abundance of caution to allow the federal agencies to properly investigate this because safety is the utmost concern. And this is proof that the process works well.

And I'm curious what your concerns are about what this does for, you know, this mistrust of the vaccinations process, especially with marginalized communities?

In the grand scheme of things, numerically, this is going to have a minuscule effect on our vaccine rollout. To date, Johnson & Johnson has accounted for just 6.3 percent of all the vaccine doses delivered to Louisiana and only 3.7 percent of the vaccine doses administered within Louisiana. So very small numbers.

But you're absolutely right. We're concerned about the message that it sends. What this tells me is that the federal government, namely the FDA and the CDC, take safety very seriously. And when there's a signal like these six cases across the country. That's enough for them to say, ‘You know what, we're going to hit pause and take time to investigate this and get to the bottom of that.’ That gives me a lot of reassurance.

Thank you. And are you familiar with these types of blood clots? I'm interested in how severe they are compared to, let's say, the blood clots that are associated with birth control. Would you categorize them as more severe?

Well, the type of blood clots that cause the signal here are pretty serious. They are cerebral sinus venous thrombosis — essentially a blood clot in the vein in the brain that helps drain the blood out of the brain. [It’s] a serious condition, [there’s] no question about that. But the concern is more than that. It’s that sometimes if the body is making blood clots where it shouldn't, it's making it not just in one location. So the investigator is going to look for not just this condition, but also increased risk of blood clots in people's legs, which are called deep vein thrombosis, increased blood clots in people's lungs, which are called pulmonary embolisms — they’re going to look at all of that.

And you’re right, other conditions increase your risk of blood clots, like being on birth control, like being immobilized for people who are bedridden or even people who took a long trip on a plane or [in] a car for hours and hours. All of those can increase one's risk of blood clots. It's not clear yet if those are additive with this particular condition, meaning someone would be at even more risk.

OK. I have a question about the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. There was a manufacturing hiccup that was going to affect shipments anyway. So with this pause, have you been able to just sort of break even in terms of what you were expecting?

We were going to get very low numbers of Johnson & Johnson anyway. We were only going to get 8,000 this week. And we think we're only going to get 2,000 doses next week and maybe even 2,000 a week after that. So numerically, this is a very, very small drop in the bucket of all the vaccine that's coming to Louisiana, I don't think it's going to affect our rollout by the numbers.

I am concerned about how this gets communicated. And we should continue to have absolute confidence, [not only] in the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, but in the underlying process. The feds are not shy about hitting pause. That gives me a lot of confidence. And anyone who was to get the J & J vaccine should be easily able to get the Pfizer or the Moderna and I very much encourage them to do so.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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