The Illinois public health department has paused of the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal regulators investigate the emergence of a blood-clotting disorder that developed in six recipients, out of nearly 7 million to receive the vaccine nationwide.
Although the single-dose shot so far has accounted for roughly 5% of vaccines shipped to Chicago and Illinois, the pause is still causing a disruption to the vaccine rollout in the city. Chicago’s Commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Dr. Allison Arwady, spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Melba Lara: Earlier today you said your department is not aware that any of the six cases of the rare blood clots that occurred after people got the J&J vaccine have been identified locally. Still, if someone recently got that vaccine what should they do?
Dr. Allison Arwady: So I want to emphasize that this is incredibly rare. This pause was done for six individuals across the whole U.S. Now, among almost 7 million people who got the vaccine, we’ve had a little bit less than 50,000 thousand people who have gotten the vaccine here in Chicago. We would not expect, given those statistics, that someone would get a severe outcome. But what we want folks to do is that if they got the J&J vaccine, for about three weeks afterwards, in case they were to develop a severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath, we would want them to seek medical care. Honestly, just like we would want them to seek medical care if they had a serious outcome otherwise and tell folks that they got the vaccine.
What if a person is scheduled to get those single dose shots in the coming days, should they just assume it’s canceled?
In the very short few days here? Yes. It’s certainly here in the city. We’ve been reaching out to people who have doses scheduled. So at Chicago State University, for example, which is our largest mass vax site that’s been using J&J, we already were moving every one of those appointments to Pfizer, so nobody needs to make a change. They can come, you know, starting tomorrow exactly when they would have had their appointment. But for a lot of the other settings or if people were scheduled for J&J at pharmacies or doctor’s offices, those are on hold and I would expect them to be on hold really probably at least for the next few days.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC is meeting tomorrow (April 14) for an emergency meeting. My expectation is we’ll know some more after that and then more in the days to come.
But I want to remind people that this has not been linked at all to the Moderna vaccine or to the Pfizer vaccine. And so we really want people to keep their appointments from Moderna and Pfizer, or if they can’t get a J&J one right now … to look for a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Because we still have to get folks vaccinated, particularly with cases on the rise.
Do you worry that this is going to cause more people to be hesitant to get vaccinated at all?
Certainly I know that people will be concerned when they hear this news. I would expect that. I want to reiterate that vaccine safety first and foremost is always our top priority, at the Chicago Department of Public Health, at the state, at the federal level. And for me, in some ways this is reassuring because it tells me that our monitoring system is working well. This is an incredibly rare event. But if it is linked to the vaccine, that’s something that we’ve detected through the monitoring system, and we’ll address it.
For the Moderna and the Pfizer, we’ve now done more than 180 million vaccinations with those two vaccines across the country. I was on a call this morning and they were saying they’ve seen zero cases of this kind of blood clot linked to either of those vaccines. And so this is for me really in some ways a reassurance that vaccine safety always comes first along with transparency and that we will continue to share every bit of information just as soon as we receive it.
But remember, we’re seeing a lot of people still get really sick, hospitalized, even die from COVID. And the risk of that remains much higher overall at a population level, particularly if we’re talking about older people with underlying conditions.