ST. LOUIS — St. Louis-area officials and health experts on Wednesday backed the federal government’s decision to temporarily bar Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine and said they didn’t think the loss would stall local vaccination efforts.
Experts did caution, however, that some residents likely will be more hesitant to get the vaccine now, and also that some hard-to-reach populations, such as the homeless, will be more difficult to vaccinate without the one-shot J&J dose.
“I understand the anxiety that comes with such a change in the national vaccine rollout,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said. “The recommendation by the CDC and the FDA to halt the use of the vaccine shows the federal government is closely monitoring vaccines as they are administered.”
Missouri and Illinois health officials on Tuesday directed health care providers to pause use of the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, after federal regulators — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration — said they were investigating unusual blood clots in six women who had received the vaccine in the U.S., out of around 7 million recipients in total.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met on Wednesday to discuss the six cases, and ultimately decided to take more time to review the data, to determine if the vaccine caused the clots.
The pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine comes amid an increase in cases in the U.S., particularly in the upper Midwest. Illinois has reported climbing case numbers and hospitalizations for more than four weeks. The state’s seven-day average was 3,354 on Wednesday, up from 1,511 on March 13.
Missouri reported a slight uptick on Wednesday, with the seven-day average of new confirmed cases hitting 400. That is the highest level in almost a month. The state on Wednesday reported 540 new confirmed cases and 313 probable cases, and three more deaths because of the virus.
In the 11-county region of Missouri that includes St. Louis, upwards of 29,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered to residents, representing between 3% and 4% of the total doses given here, according to data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
There no longer seems to be a shortage of vaccine in the region: On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, St. Louis County still had 1,600 available appointments on Thursday for the Pfizer vaccine.
Enbal Shacham, a professor at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, said she saw the regulators’ decision as a sign that the vaccines are monitored thoroughly.
“This was stopped with six cases,” Shacham said.
Kelley Vollmar, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, said her confidence in the regulatory system was reinforced, too.
“This was an extremely low number of reactions, but they took them very seriously and acted upon them,” Vollmar said. “That’s what we want them to do.”
Both said that they fear it will become more difficult to vaccinate certain groups, such as those who are homeless or transient. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only one-dose COVID-19 vaccine that has been authorized for use in the U.S.
“The two-shots are always going to be harder to administer,” Shacham said.
St. Louis County officials said they’ve given 1,800 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or less than 2% of the more than 100,000 doses administered in the county so far.
Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said the county has not received any reports of adverse reactions.
Page said the change would not impact the county’s goal to administer at least 18,000 vaccine doses a week.
About two-thirds of the county’s population remains unvaccinated, Page said. And after an uptick in COVID-19 infections, the county now is averaging about 157 new cases per day.
To schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine through St. Louis County, visit stlcorona.com, and select the “vaccine appointments” tab. Residents who do not have internet access can call the county hotline (314-615-2660) on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The county is not accepting walk-ins at its vaccine sites.
BJC HealthCare said Wednesday that it will no longer require invitations for vaccinations, and anyone 16 or older can schedule an appointment directly online. To schedule an appointment, visit bjc.org/vaccine. Appointments are available for those 16 and older, and they do not need to be BJC patients.