Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Impact on Athens Rollout

The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration recommended pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. on April 13 due to “a small number of reports of a rare and severe type of blood clot” among those who had received the vaccine, according to the CDC.

In nearly 7 million people who received the J&J vaccine, six cases of these blood clots have been reported, all of them among women ages 18 to 48.

Previously, the J&J vaccine was one of three COVID-19 vaccine options found at pharmacies and health centers around Athens, along with the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. The University of Georgia’s Health Center was offering all three vaccines to students until Tuesday’s CDC guidance was released.

According to the CDC, no such reports of blood clotting have occurred among those who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, collectively totaling around 200 million in the U.S.

Manager and co-owner of Hodgson’s Pharmacy, Rabun Neves, said the incident gives her further confidence in the safety of COVID-19 vaccines being administered.

“Our vaccine reporting system is so good that it caught six cases of this, and that's about one in a million,” Neves said. “That makes me feel that much better about all vaccines that we administer in the United States.”

Hodgson’s has been providing vaccines through the Georgia Department of Public Health since January, administering the Moderna vaccine and more recently, the J&J vaccine. After receiving its first doses last week, the pharmacy administered about 450 J&J shots and partnered with Milledge Avenue Baptist Church to host a pop-up, walk-in J&J vaccination clinic last weekend.

Like all vaccination sites in Georgia, Hodgson’s had to pause its use of the J&J vaccine starting Tuesday until further notice. Neves said the shipment of J&J vaccines she received last week are good for use until mid-June and are being “quarantined” in a tightly-controlled vaccine refrigerator.

When cancelling scheduled J&J vaccination appointments, Neves said about half of her customers were willing to receive the Moderna shot instead and the other half wanted to hold off altogether.

Ava Burgess, a senior economics and international business major at UGA, said she was not willing to receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines because of the messenger RNA technology used to make them.

mRNA vaccines have been researched for decades on cancer and viruses like flu and Zika. Authorized by the FDA for emergency use, the technology uses a genetic code to “instruct the body to produce the spike protein displayed on the surface of the virus,” according to Pfizer, which creates an immune response in the body if it is later exposed to the virus.

While the use of mRNA technology has been studied since the 1980s, the recent coronavirus vaccines are its first use in a large-scale vaccination effort.

“Even if they did everything right and all the research, they cannot tell us the long term effects of them,” Burgess said. “Johnson & Johnson is old technology stuff we've been using forever and something I'm comfortable with. I just wasn't willing to risk the maybe.”

Planning to work for a COVID-19 cautious family over the summer, Burgess instead received the J&J vaccine on April 7. After researching the incidents leading to the vaccine being recalled, Burgess said she is not concerned about her chances of being adversely affected given the low rates of occurrence and would still have chosen the J&J vaccine over the alternatives.

J&J’s single-dose administration compared to the weeks-apart two-dose of Pfizer and Moderna intrigued Ryan Beitzell, a junior finance, international business and political science major. He received it from the University Health Center on April 12, the day before the recall.

Beitzell said he wanted to be vaccinated for the sake of his family and once he learned the blood clotting cases were found in only a small number of specifically women, he was put at ease.

Neves said she speculates the J&J vaccine administration will be able to resume once practitioners across the country are equipped to treat any potential blood clots that could result, as the ones seen in this case require a different treatment than usual.