State health officials said Tuesday that Alaska is canceling upcoming appointments scheduled for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a pause in use of the vaccine.
DHSS is currently reaching out to make sure more clinics have the Pfizer BioNTech and Modern vaccines, according to Kelsey Pistotnik, an official with the Alaska Immunization Program. She said there is “plenty of stock” of both Pfizer and Moderna.
People who have recently received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, also known as the Janssen vaccine, should be cautiously monitoring their symptoms.
Anyone who has a Janssen vaccine appointment should contact their health care provider to either schedule a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or cancel the appointment until further notice.
The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration announced on Tuesday that they are recommending a pause in the distribution of the Johnson and Johnson/Janssen vaccine after six severe blood clots were reported.
As of Monday, more than 6.8 million Janssen vaccines had already been administered in the United States, including over 11,000 to Alaskans.
Alaska State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said all six reported clots appeared in women between the ages of 18 and 48, within six and 13 days after vaccination. The symptoms include headaches, abdomen and leg pain, shortness of breath and decreased motor skills.
Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, staff physician at the Department of Health and Social Services, said that the reported blood clot is classified as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and is very rare.
“I’ve only seen a couple in my career of 19 years,” she said.
There’s an area of blood collection and circulation in the brain and if a clot occurs, the blood has no exit point. This can cause internal bleeding in the brain, Rabinowitz said.
“There are some syndromes that this is very similar to … so we’ll be using some of that information and knowledge as we move forward,” she said.
Doctor of Pharmacy Coleman Cutchins compared the side-effect risks of the Janssen vaccine with other prescription drugs. He said with any new drug that receives FDA approval, the fourth round of clinical trial occurs after the medication makes it to market. That means adverse events aren’t usually reported until after a large group — much larger than the Janssen clinical trial — actually takes the new product.
“I could name 15 examples of drugs that this has happened with in the last 10 years and it shows us that the FDA process works,” Cutchins said. “It’s part of the reason we have the safest drug approval process in the world.”
Cutchins added that there are labels on many over-the-counter medications, like ibuprofen and Aleve, warning consumers about the risks of blood clots and other medical conditions.
“Everything [we do] is with a certain degree of risk,” he said. “So it’s just important to balance the benefit and the risk.”
DHSS officials still emphasized the importance of patients contacting health care providers with severe symptoms after taking any of the three available COVID vaccines.
The CDC reporting systems and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System are resources for documenting negative vaccine side effects.
“Vaccine safety is really our top priority,” Rabinowitz said. “This pause gives us a chance to talk about the clinical side of this.”
According to the FDA, most blood clots are treated with an anticoagulant drug called heparin. With these CVST cases in particular, however, the FDA and CDC speculate heparin could actually cause more damage, so alternative treatments will likely be administered.
Similar blood clotting has occurred in patients after receiving Britain’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is currently not approved by the CDC and the FDA in the U.S. According to BBC News, out of the 20 million AstraZeneca doses administered in the European Union by the end of March, 79 people — around 66% of them women — experienced clotting. Nineteen of them died.
Multiple European countries have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger people, or for all their citizens.
Rabinowitz said she and her team will use the American College of Physicians’ analysis of the AstraZeneca reporting to better understand the cause of the Janssen blood clotting.
McLaughlin said he hopes the Janssen pause won’t increase vaccine hesitancy.
“In terms of how we counter that, I think the biggest thing is just to relay information,” he said. “It’s really important to be as transparent as we possibly can.”
Over one quarter — 25.4% — of the Kenai Peninsula population across all ages are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data updated on Tuesday. This compares to the U.S. vaccination percentage of 22.3% reported by NPR. Researches estimate 75% to 80% of the U.S. population will need to be vaccinated before stopping the virus spread.
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data on the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that as of Tuesday, on the peninsula 17,778 people have received at least one dose and 14,987 have been fully vaccinated.
Statewide as of Tuesday there have been 258,687 people in Alaska or 30.2% who have received at least one dose and wand 208,812 or 27.9% of Alaskans who are fully vaccinated.
Additionally, fully vaccinated people no longer need to quarantine if they get exposed to a case of COVID-19, as long as they remain asymptomatic. To read the full CDC guidelines, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html.
For the month of April, South Peninsula Hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro said the hospital is expecting 2,300 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 100 Janssen doses from Johnson & Johnson.
A walk-in clinic for the Pfizer vaccine is scheduled for 9-11 a.m. Saturday, April 17, at Homer High School. Individual appointments for the Pfizer vaccine are available at the Covid Vaccine and Test Clinic on Bartlett street. Several dates are available in April.
Alaska was the first state to open up COVID-19 vaccines to all residents age 16 and older. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for people age 16 and older, while the Moderna vaccine and the Janssen vaccine from Johnson & Johnson are able to be used on people 18 and older.
To see all the state’s options for health care providers offering the vaccine, or to find a specific provider, visit the state’s website at dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/Vaccineappointments.aspx.
Where can you get the vaccine locally?
South Peninsula Hospital has announced a walk-in vaccine clinic for the Pfizer vaccine from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, April 17, at Homer High School.
Call for an individual appointment for Pfizer vaccination at the Covid Vaccine and Test Clinic on Bartlett street. Several dates are available in April. You can sign up at the hospital’s website, www.sphosp.org. Those without internet or who need assistance can call 907-435-3188.
Vaccines are not yet available through the hospital’s Homer Medical Center or South Peninsula Family Care Clinic. Anyone who has had their first dose of the vaccine does not need to call to schedule a second one. Their follow up dose was scheduled the day they got their first one.
The Safeway Pharmacy is offering vaccine appointments as doses are available. The store chain has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services to provide vaccines to customers. To sign up for a vaccine through the Safeway Pharmacy, visit www.safeway.com/pharmacy/covid-19.html.
SVT Health & Wellness continues to offer vaccines to its patients as it receives allocations from the state. Patients can call 907-226-2228 to be put on a list to receive the vaccine. The health care provider is owned and operated by the Seldovia Village Tribe, but its clinics in Seldovia, Homer and Anchor Point serve the communities at large. The clinics welcome new patients; a medical visit is required to establish care through SVT Health & Wellness.
Kachemak Medical Group is offering the COVID-19 vaccine to people in the community, as it receives it allocations from the state. You do not have to be a current patient to receive it. To sign up for the vaccine, call Kachemak Medical Group at 907-235-7000 to be put on their list. As vaccine doses are received, the provider will call people and offer them appointments in the order they signed up. If the provider cannot reach a person on the list, they will go to the next name, but the person will remain on the list for a vaccine.
NTC Community Clinic in Ninilchik is now offering the vaccine to anyone. Those interested can call 907-567-3970 to be put on the list to receive the vaccine.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.