Pausing the J&J vaccine

The Chicago Tribune

Blood clots in veins that drain blood from the brain can lead to alarming strokelike results. The symptoms can be severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain and shortness of breath.

That’s why it made sense for federal, state and local health officials to hit the pause button Tuesday and again on Wednesday on continued distribution of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. Six known cases of a rare clotting disorder called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis in women between the ages of 18 and 48 might be linked to the vaccine, health officials said. More information is needed.

On Wednesday, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met to decide next steps. The committee opted for additional time to gather information. They also learned more about the six women, one of whom died 11 or 12 days after receiving the vaccine — a 45-year-old woman with no known risk factors — and other reactions reported nationally that could be linked to the vaccine.

A Nebraska woman, 48 years old, presented with possible cerebral venous symptoms 14 days after the vaccination. She has not recovered. The youngest woman with possible serious side effects, an 18-year-old from Nevada, experienced complications, including cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, 14 days after vaccination. Her status, doctors said, is “not recovered.”

Five of the six women reported headaches initially. Later, some of them reported left-side weakness, vomiting, vision troubles, severe abdominal pain and loss of consciousness. Three remain hospitalized with two in intensive care, doctors said on Wednesday.

The individual stories are scary to be sure.

But it’s critical to keep them in context. Of the nearly 7 million doses given across the U.S., only six suspected cases with this side effect are known so far. In Illinois, more than 290,000 doses have been given, including to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, with no serious problems.

The vaccine remains effective in inoculating patients from COVID-19 66 percent of the time and limiting severe cases of COVID-19 that require hospitalization nearly 100 percent of the time, health officials said.

Hitting the pause button was a smart and cautious approach, and continues to be so, especially given two other alternatives exist, Pfizer and Moderna, to continue mass vaccination programs. The city of Chicago is rescheduling appointments for those who were supposed to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Pritzker said the state would help supplement supplies of the other two brands to Chicago for residents still waiting to be inoculated.

Dozens of health experts met Wednesday to discuss in detail what they know. The continued pause, out of an abundance of caution, is not something to be feared but rather, something on which to build confidence in safety protocols. If the vaccine is pulled off shelves permanently, it will be because of this moment.

By Patricia Older