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Pennsylvania pauses use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine

April 13, 2021 GMT
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Pharmacist Dr. Joe Albert Fills a syringe with a Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine at Albert's Pharmacy in Pittston, Pa., Monday April 12, 2021. (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice via AP)
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Pharmacist Dr. Joe Albert Fills a syringe with a Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine at Albert's Pharmacy in Pittston, Pa., Monday April 12, 2021. (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice via AP)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pennsylvania is following the federal government’s recommendation and pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during an investigation into reports of unusual blood clots, but health officials suggested the impact on the state’s overall rollout will be relatively small.

The state Department of Health told vaccine providers on Tuesday to stop administering the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine until at least April 20. The temporary halt came the same day that Pennsylvania expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 shot to everyone aged 16 and older.

Several vaccine clinics were canceled as a result of the temporary suspension. A regional mass vaccination site at Penn State University’s Bryce Jordan Center, which opened Friday and was projected to give 600 doses of the J&J vaccine per day, was shuttered for at least a week.

The decision to halt J&J vaccinations “may be challenging for those who are looking to get vaccinated, as well as those who have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” but it was made “out of an abundance of caution,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said.

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“We have said these vaccines would be the most scrutinized and watched vaccines ever in history, and this step reflects this,” she said at a news conference.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration announced that they were investigating rare but potentially dangerous blood clots that occurred 6 to 13 days after vaccination. The FDA expected the pause to last a matter of days.

All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48. One person died, and all of the cases remain under investigation.

Beam said none of the cases occurred in Pennsylvania.

The vast majority of Pennsylvania residents who have gotten a COVID-19 shot received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Both of those vaccines, which are unaffected by the pause, have been more predictable in their supply, helping pave the way for universal eligibility across the state. The two vaccines represent nearly 95% of the state’s allotment of about 300,000 doses this week,

“Much of that scheduling really was reliant upon the Pfizer and the Moderna predictability, primarily, because those are the allocations that have stayed steady or incrementally increased week over week. The availability of the J&J vaccine has fluctuated,” Beam said.

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The Wolf administration had reserved its initial J&J allotment for educators and child care workers, and was setting aside subsequent doses for law enforcement, firefighters, grocery store workers and food and agricultural workers. The Health Department said it was in touch with those groups about the temporary pause.

Though J&J has played a relatively small role in Pennsylvania’s overall vaccine rollout to date, the decision to halt administration did create some headaches.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, Delaware County had been using some of its J&J allotment to reach homebound and homeless people, and said it would switch to using the Moderna vaccine for those programs. A large-scale vaccination site at Delaware County Community College that had been using the J&J vaccine was to be relocated and planned to give either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, a spokesperson said.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said vaccine clinics in the city would stop using J&J “until we receive further guidance.” Some city clinics were forced to close Tuesday, while others were to be switched to other approved COVID-19 vaccines. Philadelphia gets its allotment directly from the federal government.

The city reached 1 million vaccinations on Tuesday — only about 26,000 of which were J&J.

“This is a setback, but I would consider it to be a small setback in an overall program that has been very successful,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mass vaccination site in Philadelphia, which was scheduled to spend the next two weeks giving the single-dose vaccine, pivoted quickly Tuesday to secure doses of Pfizer. City officials said appointments should be able to move forward as scheduled. The city asked FEMA to extend the clinic by several weeks to allow people who got their first Pfizer dose at the clinic to get the second dose there.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.