California, Bay Area Counties Pause Use of Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Following Federal Recommendation

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A dose of the new one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination event March 11, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

California state officials directed counties and other providers on Tuesday to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration as agencies examine a possible and rare side effect that can cause blood clots.

On a visit to Butte County this morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that J&J vaccines represent about 4% of the state's weekly allocation of vaccines from the federal government.

“We are mindful that with the J&J, our ability to do as much as we had anticipated this week and over the next few weeks is impacted,” he said. “but our medium and long term goals are not.”

The governor's office also said on social media that the pause will not affect plans to open vaccination to all eligible teens and adults as scheduled on Thursday or its broader plan to reopen California's economy in mid-June.

Several Bay Area counties have already announced temporary halts to the use of the one-dose J&J vaccine. As of publication, this list includes San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Sonoma, Alameda and Solano counties.

In Southern California, the city of Los Angeles has also announced its intention to pause the use of this vaccine.

The San Francisco COVID Command Center informed through its own statement that out of the 33,000 doses of the J&J vaccine that the city has administered so far, there are no reported cases of blood clotting.

"As this adverse event is reported to be extremely rare with just over six reported cases nationwide, we do not believe there is cause for immediate alarm," city officials said, adding that anyone who has received the J&J vaccine should contact their care provider if they experience severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination.

Only 5% of the doses San Francisco received this week are of the J&J vaccine. Similarly, other counties have indicated that this vaccine makes up a very small proportion of their supplies.

In Marin County, J&J doses account for less than 3% of the county's cumulative vaccine allocation, according to health officials. The county expects to use Pfizer and Moderna doses instead in its efforts to vaccinate harder-to-reach groups.

Similarly, Santa Clara County said in its own statement that it "anticipates being able to cover all scheduled appointments with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines."

Contra Costa County, for its part, has made it clear that it does not plan to cancel any vaccination appointments, and residents who have already made an appointment should still show up to their vaccination time. The county also shared that it does not know of any cases of blood clots connected to the COVID-19 vaccines it has already administered.

However, the counties were clear in pointing out the safety of the other two vaccines. "The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines ... are proven to be highly effective at preventing hospitalization or death from COVID-19," said the San Francisco COVID Command Center.

The pause on J&J vaccines may now make it more difficult for public health officials to promote the use of this type of vaccine. Newsom and other high-profile California officials publicly received shots of the J&J vaccine in an attempt to demonstrate to the public that it was safe.

“We’ve administered some 6.85 million doses of the J&J vaccine but you’ve had 6 recorded incidents of serious conditions,” Newsom said today.

“Six. That’s one in quite literally a million. I had the J&J vaccine. I had no side effects, whatsoever.”

But production issues have plagued the vaccine. State public health officials last week warned of significant drops in shipments, from 575,000 J&J doses last week to 67,000 doses this week and 22,000 doses next week.

As a result, California will receive 2 million doses of all vaccine doses this week and 1.9 million doses next week, in addition to doses provided directly to pharmacies and community health clinics by the federal government.

The CDC and the FDA said Tuesday they were investigating clots in six women that emerged in the days after they were vaccinated, in combination with reduced platelet counts. Federal officials recommended pausing use of the vaccine until they know more.

More than 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the U.S., the vast majority with no or mild side effects.

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A CDC committee will meet Wednesday to discuss the cases, and the FDA has also launched an investigation.

State epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan also said California will convene a regional scientific safety workgroup to review information provided by the federal government. The review group created by California and joined by Nevada, Washington and Oregon, approved the J&J vaccine for use in the states on March 3. California got its first shipment of the shots that week.

Newsom, a Democrat, created the group amid fears that former President Donald Trump’s administration would politicize the approval process. The group reviewed the FDA’s approval of the shot and deemed it safe and effective.

This post has been updated and includes reporting from KQED's Kate Wolffe, Peter Arcuni and Ted Goldberg.