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What The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause Means For The U.S.'s Distribution Plan

Apr 17, 2021
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The CDC says a pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will remain in place until at least next Friday. That announcement comes just ahead of a milestone in the nation's vaccine rollout, an update that means millions more people will be eligible to get a shot.

NPR's Pien Huang is here to share the latest on vaccines and their distribution. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So we should first note that people are still dying from COVID - just over 566,000 in the U.S. alone, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins. So getting these vaccines into arms is absolutely crucial. As you look at the big picture, how is the rollout going?

HUANG: Almost half of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That amounts to more than 126 million people, and that's according to CDC data. But across the country, starting Monday, the government has announced that anyone 16 and older will be eligible to get a vaccine. Here's CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: If you have not been vaccinated, I want to encourage you to do so as soon as you can. Widespread vaccination is the only way we will ultimately move past this pandemic.

HUANG: Now, the White House says it doesn't mean that everyone can get an appointment right away, but their goal is to have enough doses to cover all adults by the end of May.

ELLIOTT: There was that hitch in the vaccine distribution this week with the Johnson & Johnson version.

HUANG: Yeah. On Tuesday, health officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC put a pause on using the J&J vaccine while they look into the possibility of rare but serious side effects. Six women developed a rare blood-clotting disorder about one to two weeks after getting the vaccine. They got severe blood clots that stopped blood from draining from the brain, along with low platelet counts. And apparently, these two things in combination is very rare. One woman died.

So the CDC and FDA said, hold up; we need to figure out what's happening, and we also need to tell patients and clinicians how to look for it and how to treat it.

ELLIOTT: So what do we know about how long the pause will last and what will happen next?

HUANG: Well, it's been a real scramble this week. Some clinics canceled appointments or subbed in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when possible as they wait for more guidance from health authorities. And the pause is likely to continue for at least another week. Right now, the CDC is gathering more information, looking for more cases. And they say the symptoms to watch for include severe headaches or abdominal pain, blurry vision, shortness of breath. So if you've gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the past three weeks and you develop any of these symptoms, health officials recommend seeking immediate medical attention.

Next Friday, the CDC has scheduled a big all-day meeting. They'll review what's known, and they'll decide whether to restrict it in any way and end the pause. I should also add that none of these side effects have been seen with the other two vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

ELLIOTT: So this pause to gather information should be reassuring, but are there any signs that people's confidence in these vaccines is slipping because of this?

HUANG: Well, there's no clear signs yet, but health officials are concerned that just hearing about a serious side effect, even if it's very rare and associated with just one vaccine, might make people hold off. But Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that making the vaccines available to all adults should counter hesitancy.

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VIVEK MURTHY: The more people see those around them get vaccinated, particularly family and friends, the more comfortable they become with getting vaccinated themselves.

HUANG: And even though the data are still coming in, millions of people did get vaccinated with one of the other vaccines after the pause was announced.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Thanks, Pien.

HUANG: Thanks, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.