California’s pause on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal agencies examine a possible and rare side effect is unlikely to affect vaccination efforts in the nation’s most populous state as it moves to start inoculating people 16 and older this week.
State officials directed counties and other providers on Tuesday to halt use of the vaccine per federal recommendation. But Gov. Gavin Newsom said he does not expect the halt to “materially impact our ability to fulfill our expectations.” Vaccinations are expected to be available for people 16 and older Thursday and California plans to lift most pandemic restrictions in mid-June.
Newsom said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine accounts for only 4% of the state’s current supply and that inoculations of more than 3 million people a week will keep the state on track to reopen broadly June 15. He said officials are working to switch about 8,800 people who had made Johnson & Johnson reservations via a state online platform to Pfizer and Moderna shots.
“The J&J vaccine has been extraordinarily safe,” he said at an event in Butte County.
More than 15 million Californians are fully or partially vaccinated. Of those, nearly 900,000 have received J&J shots, according to the state’s public health agency, including Newsom and other top health officials who publicly received the shots to demonstrate the vaccine’s safety.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration officials said Tuesday that they were investigating blood clots in six women that emerged in the days after they were vaccinated, in combination with reduced platelet counts. The 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 given in the U.S., the vast majority with no or mild side effects.
Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco, said there is great enthusiasm for the J&J vaccine in vulnerable communities because it requires only one shot and has high brand name recognition.
It has also made it easier to vaccinate mobile communities, such as homeless people who may be harder to locate for a second shot, people who have to drive long distances to get the shot or other hard-to-reach populations, she said.
“We worry that it puts a big damper on efforts that have really been ramping up,” Bibbins-Domingo said of the pause.
The decision to pause J&J inoculations show the agencies are working hard to reassure the public, but anything that raises concerns about vaccine safety could increase vaccine skepticism, said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Medicine.
“Our case rates are still pretty low, our hospitalization rates and mortality rates are very low relative to what they were in January,” Brewer said. “So I think we’re still moving forward.”
Counties and health care providers reported little disruption to vaccination appointments, in part because of vastly reduced J&J shipments this week due to production problems. California received 67,000 doses of J&J this week compared with 575,000 last week.
Several counties are already vaccinating people 16 and older in advance of the state expanding eligibility on Thursday.
Isis Gardner, an 18-year-old senior at San Pedro High School in Los Angeles, received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday rather than the Johnson & Johnson vaccination she was scheduled to get.
“My mom, she’d been telling me the Pfizer is better than the J&J” because of possible blood clots, said Gardner, adding that she’s “definitely happy” about the substitution.
Riverside County canceled mobile clinic appointments Tuesday for roughly 400 people. A clinic scheduled for Saturday in the mountain community of Idyllwild will use Pfizer instead of the J&J vaccine and vaccinators will return in May to deliver second shots, said Jose Arballo, a spokesman for Riverside County’s health agency.
In Los Angeles, city officials said they would use other vaccine in place of 3,000 scheduled J&J vaccinations.
Los Angeles County public health officials said people who received the vaccine in the last three weeks should contact their doctor if they experience symptoms of “these unusual clots,” including severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain, and shortness of breath.
State epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan 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 Johnson & Johnson for use 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.