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State health officials worry that vaccine troubles could fuel anti-vax sentiments.

COURTESY PHOTO: NEW YORK NATIONAL GUARD - Oregon officials have halted use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines until safety concerns can be addressed.Oregon has "paused" using the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine even though none of six newly reported severe reactions to the vaccine occurred in the state, health officials said Tuesday, April 13.

The Centers for Disease Control urged states to temporarily stop using the vaccine given 6.8 million people after six women who received the vaccine became seriously ill and one died.

"This appears to be extremely rare," Dr. Paul Cieslak, Oregon Health Authority's medical director for acute and communicable disease and immunizations, said during an afternoon press call.

The CDC said the six women were aged 18 to 48. They became ill from one to three weeks after their vaccination. The cause appeared to be a rare blood clot disorder.

capital bureauThe state has given about 82,000 Johnson & Johnson shots, a tiny fraction of the 2.3 million vaccine doses administered since December. OHA said about 212,000 doses are on hand in 225 locations around the state and can be kept in regular refrigeration units for later use when federal officials lift the advisory.

Cieslak said severe symptoms include pain in the legs — which could indicate a blood clot — severe headache and abdominal pain. Anyone experiencing the symptoms should contact their doctor or local public health agency. Information is also available by calling 211.

There have been similar reports of severe side effects and blood clots for the Moderna and Pfizer two-shot vaccines. Like the Johnson & Johnson doses, those cases have been rare. More than 180 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been given (about 68 million Americans have received two doses), with only about three dozen cases of severe side effects reported.

Federal health officials meet Wednesday, April 14, to look at the data on the severe cases and see if there is a direct connection between the vaccine and the illnesses.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Tuesday during a press conference in Washington, D.C., that a review of the vaccine would likely be "a matter of days."

Cieslak said the state would resume using the one-shot vaccine as soon as it gets "a green light" from federal officials.

The halt in using Johnson & Johnson vaccines will not change plans to open up vaccine eligibility to everyone age 16 and older on Monday. Availability has lagged eligibility throughout the vaccination priority phases and the same is expected to occur next week.

"People will have to wait a little longer" to get vaccinated, Cieslak said.

'Additional fuel'

Oregon officials had already been bracing for a steep drop in available doses of the vaccine due to a botched batch of 15 million doses that had to be destroyed at a Baltimore facility.

Oregon received more than 60,000 doses last week, but the breakdown in the supply chain due to the mishap in Baltimore reduced the flow to 8,000 this week and down to 2,000 next week.

OHA reported Tuesday that 928,874 Oregon residents have been completely inoculated, mostly with the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Another 539,753 people have received their first dose of a two-shot vaccine. The second shots are given three to four weeks after the first.

OHA has estimated that up to 3.2 million Oregonians are 16 and older, the age group currently approved as safe to vaccinate. Several research efforts into a vaccine for children are underway, but none has been given federal approval.

Asked if the pause would fuel vaccine hesitancy among Oregonians, Cieslak said that those predisposed to not be vaccinated will likely latch on to the issue.

"There are some people who are going to decline vaccination regardless," he said. "If they were thinking vaccinations were harmful anyway, this will give them additional fuel."

But the pause was actually a way to show the public that serious reactions, no matter how tiny a percentage, will be investigated. He expects the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be back in use relatively soon. Whatever vaccine is available, he encouraged residents to sign up.

The vaccines are "effective on a disease that has killed a lot of people," he said.

Infections on rise again

Gov. Kate Brown was inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine March 6 to show the state's confidence in the vaccine. She has reported no side effects. The vaccine was also given to several lawmakers and staff during an April 7 clinic in Salem.

COVID-19 has infected 31.2 million people in the United States and caused over 562,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Oregon has had one of the lowest infection and death rates in the country, with OHA reporting 171,398 positive cases through Tuesday, and 2,446 deaths.

Infections have been on the rise again during the past few weeks after a long decline following the peak levels of January. Most of the deaths throughout the pandemic have been in adults 70 and older. About 75 percent of that population in Oregon has now been vaccinated.

The high immunization level of those most vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19 has slowed hospitalizations and deaths during the current rise in overall infections.

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