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J&J vaccine suspended statewide — but city’s top doc says don’t be ‘severely worried’ if you’ve already had your dose

Chicago had planned to switch to the single-dose vaccine at the United Center beginning Monday. It’s now being shelved across Illinois while federal officials investigate a handful of cases of severe side effects among about 7 million recipients.

Registered nurse Florisa N. Lingad holds a Johnson & Johnson Janssen Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel in March.
Registered nurse Florisa N. Lingad holds a Johnson & Johnson Janssen Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel in March.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine came to a grinding halt across Illinois Tuesday after federal health authorities recommended a “pause” in administering it while experts investigate reports of extremely rare but potentially dangerous blood clots.

The severe side effects were found in only six people among nearly 7 million nationwide who have gotten the single-shot J&J dose, and none of those outliers occurred in Illinois.

But the temporary suspension means many appointments will be canceled and fewer shots will go into Illinois arms for at least the next few days as the Food and Drug Administration reviews the vaccine data.

Johnson & Johnson doses have accounted for less than 4% of the 7.3 million shots that have been doled out so far statewide. A total of 290,615 people — including Gov. J.B. Pritzker —have received it in Illinois, more than 47,000 in Chicago.

The more-effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines still make up the vast majority of vaccine supply in Chicago and the rest of the state, but the “timing is bad” for the Johnson & Johnson setback, according to the city’s top doctor — especially with infection rates crawling back up to troubling highs across the state.

“This is a hit, no doubt about it,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during an online Q&A.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a City Hall news conference in 2020.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a City Hall news conference last year.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

All local vaccine agencies from the Illinois Department of Public Health on down are following the federal directive to shelve J&J vials for now, including Walgreens. Arwady called that “the right decision,” but said it still shouldn’t shake anyone’s confidence in the vaccine.

“You should not be severely worried at all if you got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Again, this is very, very rare and there’s nothing that you need to do differently,” she said. “Up to about three weeks afterwards, if you were to get a severe headache or abdominal pain or leg pain or shortness of breath — these all could be signs of a blood clot, and we want you to seek medical care.”

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sits on a table at a pop-up vaccinations site.
Federal health authorities on Tuesday recommended a “pause” on the use of J&J’s vaccine while they investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.
Archivo de AP

In a joint statement Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA said they were investigating clots in six women that occurred six to 13 days after vaccination. The clots were observed in the sinuses of the brain along with reduced platelet counts — making the usual treatment for blood clots, the blood thinner heparin, potentially “dangerous.”

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet Wednesday to discuss the cases and the FDA has also launched an investigation into the cause of the clots and low platelet counts.

Pritzker said he felt great after receiving the J&J shot March 24.

In a tweet Tuesday, the governor said the state would send 50,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna to Chicago over the next week in light of the Johnson & Johnson stoppage.

“As cases climb across the country, I encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Pritzker tweeted.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike noted “the blood clot cases appear to be extremely rare,” and she “strongly encouraged” residents to keep getting vaccinated.

When the J&J shot received emergency use authorization in February, it was hailed as a breakthrough toward ending the pandemic since it’s easier to ship and store, and only requires one dose.

Tuesday’s suspension put an immediate stop on several city-run vaccination efforts including a program bringing shots to homebound residents, an O’Hare Airport clinic for transit workers and the city’s “vaccine bus.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters in December.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters in December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Overall, at least 13,000 Chicago appointments have to be rescheduled this week.

“We’re gonna work to figure out what we can do in terms of supply to make sure people can access vaccine,” Arwady said.

The city’s new mass vaccination site at Chicago State University will switch to Pfizer doses, so appointments there aren’t affected.

The mass vaccination site at the United Center had been scheduled to begin administering J&J shots Monday but that plan is on hold, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman. “We are working with our state partners to assess the impact and determine a path forward,” he said.

A member of the Illinois National Guard checks a person’s temperature outside the COVID-19 mass vaccination site that was set up on the parking lot of the United Center last month.
A member of the Illinois National Guard checks a person’s temperature outside the COVID-19 mass vaccination site that was set up on the parking lot of the United Center last month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The state Department of Public Health said it was “strongly advising providers to use Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines” to keep appointments.

Cook County is substituting the Moderna vaccine at its Tinley Park mass vaccination site, but there will be no change in appointments at the site, spokesman Tom McFeeley said.

The county’s two other primary vaccination sites in Des Plaines and Forest Park will not be affected because they had not been scheduled to use J&J.

About 23% of Illinois residents have been fully vaccinated so far, with 100,729 doses administered Monday.

But with the average statewide positivity rate at 4.3%, the vaccine is spreading as rapidly as it has since late January. COVID-19 hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the last month, with 2,028 beds occupied Monday night.

The state reported 3,193 new cases and 17 more deaths, including those of five Cook County residents.

Illinois death toll is up to 21,540, among about 1.3 million residents confirmed infected over the last 13 months.

Contributing: Associated Press

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

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