Indianapolis — A blue card sat on the windshield of Josh Woolvin’s black Hyundai Tucson on Tuesday, a spot of color in the sunshine at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It signaled to nurses at this drive-by immunization clinic that Woolvin and his mother, Debbie Shipp, wanted Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose coronavirus vaccine, not their other choice, Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-shot regimen.
Both selected Johnson & Johnson for its one-and-done convenience, a preference that outweighed their concerns about the extremely rare blood clots that prompted a 10-day pause in use of the vaccine.
“I’d rather deal with the side effects than die” of COVID-19, Woolvin said.
There is no government data yet on whether health authorities’ 10-day halt in administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine soured people on the product, and the company declined to discuss the matter. But in spot checks across the country, people seeking vaccines and officials dispensing them appear eager to resume using the vaccine, which is also easier to store and transport.
On Tuesday, for example, 1,355 people at the racetrack chose Johnson & Johnson at the clinic run by Indiana University Health, while 407 took the Pfizer vaccine, according to spokesman Jonathon Hosea. At a homeless program in San Francisco, drugstores in Maine and universities across the country, the same sentiment is largely true.
“For most people experiencing homelessness, it was their preference,” said Margot Kushel, director of the UC San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, who hopes her county health department reauthorizes use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in time for another outreach Thursday. “They wanted it to be one and done. They didn’t want to worry about coming back.”
More than 7 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine – a small fraction of the national total – had been dispensed when health authorities halted use of the product April 13 to allow review of a handful of cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, the clotting disorder that has affected at least 15 people, killing one. Ten days later, federal health officials authorized resumption of the use of the vaccine with a warning about the rare side effect.
Another 9 million doses had been shipped and were available, according to Ian Sams, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But there appears to be little Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the pipeline at the moment. Federal data released Tuesday shows that just 765,000 doses were allocated this week.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll suggested that fewer than one in four unvaccinated people would be willing to get the J & J vaccine. But the survey was taken during the pause, while health authorities were reviewing the safety data.
Company spokesman Jake Sargent said Johnson & Johnson would not comment. He pointed to a statement released April 23 by the company’s chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, who said that “as the global pandemic continues to devastate communities around the world, we believe a single-shot, easily transportable COVID-19 vaccine with demonstrated protection against multiple variants can help protect the health and safety of people everywhere.”
Near the Canadian border in rural Van Buren, Maine, pharmacist John Hebert started giving vaccinations in December. He initially had an allocation of Moderna that he took to nursing homes across the state. That sometimes took Hebert on day-long drives to elderly populations as far as Portland, more than 300 miles away.
After the J & J vaccine was authorized in February, Hebert, the head pharmacist at Hebert Rexall Pharmacy, said the one-dose shot was the “ideal offering for that kind of activity” because he doesn’t have to return for second shots weeks later, a requirement for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Hebert had about 100 doses of the J & J vaccine in the refrigerator when the pause was imposed. He believes they will be used as he continues to trek to homebound residents of the state.
“It’s going to go fairly quickly,” Hebert said. “We have a list that only want J & J.”
Hebert believes the pause may have contributed slightly to vaccine hesitancy – but that it won’t take long to reverse. “We can get those people back,” he said.
At a town hall event for evangelicals hosted Tuesday by Wheaton College, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said his two young adult grandchildren chose J & J – a decision he supported. Collins described the single shot’s practical benefits and extremely rare clotting risk, but worried that concerns about the company’s vaccine may extend to the other two “in a way that would not be justified by the data we have seen.”
Eric Norberg, the pharmacist and owner of Carroll Drug Store in Southwest Harbor, Maine, said the CDC allocated Moderna to his small operation a couple of weeks ago but uptake has been slow. He doesn’t know whether that is because people in the area already traveled to get vaccinated in other places or whether there is hesitancy about vaccination in general.
“There’s not as much traction as I was hoping,” said Norberg, whose store administered about 70 doses last week and 30 so far this week. The store has called many homebound people and found they already have been helped by friends and neighbors.
The Moderna vaccine is packaged in 10-dose vials, all of which need to be used within hours. Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine comes in five-dose vials and can be stored in a regular refrigerator, presenting less of a logistical challenge, Norberg said. Looking ahead, he said, the J & J vaccine would be useful for seasonal workers who power the town’s summer tourist economy.
At the University of Arizona, the vaccination campaign has relied heavily on the Pfizer shots because the school has the substantial special freezer capacity required to store those doses. But President Robert Robbins said he expects the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will continue to be a useful tool for many colleges and universities.
“The best vaccine is the one you can get tomorrow,” he said. The paramount goal, he added, is to “vaccinate as many people as you can as fast as you can.”
At the University System of Maryland, Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said the J & J vaccine was convenient because of its single dose and its storage capabilities.
The system is determined to continue its effort to vaccinate students, regardless of the vaccines it receives from the federal and state governments.
Before the pause, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine wasn’t in wide use at Maryland schools because the supply was limited. “Would it be nice to offer individuals a choice on the vaccine they receive – for example, Pfizer over J & J? Sure it would – but that will be up to state health authorities to decide. In the meantime, we will continue moving forward assuming use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” she said.
At the racetrack, Shipp arrived with a clear evaluation of her options. She said her husband had experienced side effects after his Johnson & Johnson shot, including headaches and restless legs syndrome.
She was nervous about similar problems, but added: “I think it’s just a roll of the dice. It could happen with any of the vaccinations.”
Kushel, director of the San Francisco program trying that is trying to reach 30,000 to 40,000 people on the street, in single-room occupancy hotels and in supported housing, recalled a moment on April 8, when a pop-up effort ran out of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Workers quickly made arrangements to transport people waiting in line to a hospital for their shots.
“People’s first question was ‘What vaccine is it?’ It was really amazing,” she said. Upon learning they would receive the two-shot Moderna vaccine, they all had the same reaction, she said: “Yeah, no, we’ll wait.”
Kushel said her task force will have another vaccine on hand for those reluctant to accept Johnson & Johnson, and will explain the risks to women of childbearing age, the group most affected by the blood clotting found so far. She said she has spoken to one group that will not accept Johsnon & Johnson because of the fear of the rare blood clots.
But avoiding the effort of chasing down sometimes mobile and hard-to-find homeless people for their second shots is a major advantage, she said.
“The J & J vaccine is easier. The dose vials are smaller. We have not wasted one dose,” she said. “I would be thrilled to have it back.”
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