PENDLETON — Eastern Oregon officials are raising concerns over vaccine hesitancy and adapting their efforts amid a national “pause” over the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while federal health regulators investigate six rare reports of blood clots in women ages 18 to 48.
The six cases are among the nearly 7 million people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States as of Monday, April 12, with no other serious adverse reactions having been reported, according to the New York Times.
“I’m worried that it’s going to drive anti-vaccine messaging and hesitancy further,” Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said of the pause. “There’s a very small number of folks. We’re talking less than one-in-a-million chance. ”
One of the women has died and another is hospitalized and in critical condition, and all six women developed the illness within one to three weeks of receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to federal officials. None of the six women were from Oregon, according to the state.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson advised people who’ve received its vaccine to contact a health care provider if they experience symptoms of blood clots within three weeks of their vaccinations, which can include headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath.
The announcement prompted Oregon health officials on Tuesday, April 13, to suspend the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine statewide. At least 85,148 Oregonians have received the vaccine so far, according to state health data as of April 12.
In response, Morrow County officials on April 13, canceled the last clinic scheduled during an eight-day commitment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Oregon Health Authority intending to vaccinate people en masse with 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“It was going to be our last strong day in Morrow County,” Morrow County Commissioner Melissa Lindsay said. “This is really depressing and disappointing and frustrating. We really want to get people vaccinated so we can keep moving forward, and as we see (coronavirus cases) going up around the state, it’s just concerning.”
Officials had only used “about 800 doses” of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the clinics, said Lindsay, who believes the low turnout was partly due to vaccine hesitancy among newly eligible groups.
“I’m definitely worried about how this will play into that hesitancy,” she said of the pause.
In Umatilla County, officials will now be using Moderna vaccines at clinics originally scheduled with Johnson & Johnson vaccines, including those geared toward agricultural workers and local schools, according to county health officials. Other facilities using Johnson & Johnson will also be halting efforts, county health officials said.
Alisha Lundgren, deputy director for Umatilla County Public Health, said the pause will not force the county health department to cancel events or slow its efforts.
Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock called the latest pause a “disaster.” He’s concerned the pause could drive the county’s already-low vaccine rates further down as cases rise elsewhere in Oregon.
“We’re already having difficulty trying to get a larger percentage of our residents to get a shot in the first place regardless of the manufacturer,” he said. “Anything like this sets back our efforts.”
In all, more than 2,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in Umatilla County, according to state health data. More than 800 doses of the vaccine are on hold for the time being, according to county officials.
Murdock estimates that more than half of the county’s residents are reluctant to get the vaccine. And in recent weeks, the health department has consistently seen leftover doses and open appointments at vaccine clinics, which officials attribute to vaccine skepticism.
The pause comes as Umatilla County reports some of its lowest COVID-19 data points since the pandemic began and was recently lowered by the state to the moderate coronavirus risk category.
The county reported 33 cases last week and 25 the week before — the lowest two-week total since last spring, according to county health data. The county also reported a testing positivity rate of 3% last week and has no active COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to county officials.
“The statistics for cases and hospitalizations show that we’re making real (progress) with the health of our citizens,” Murdock said. “We don’t want to lose that momentum.”
The Morrow County clinic was one of three clinics nationally where FEMA assisted local officials with a vaccine rollout, providing staffing and resources that small counties typically lack. For Lindsay, the canceled clinic felt like a lost opportunity.
“It was a lot of people on the ground that gave our health department a break,” she said.
And with cases rising statewide and nationally, it is concerning that “now our ability to vaccinate is slowed down,” Lindsay said.
The county was planning to give its leftover doses to Malheur County to help raise its vaccination rates, “but at this point that will be on hold,” Lindsay said.