‘The risk here is this steers us off course’: Pause of Johnson & Johnson shots brings vaccine hesitancy concerns

Health experts say halt is sign the system is working, 'safety really is the number one priority'

MADISON, Wis. – While scientists look into a potential connection between the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and severe blood clots, health experts are also considering a risk of heightened vaccine hesitancy.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is instructing vaccinators to pause their use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six women reported the rare clotting disorder cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. A total of 6.8 million doses have been administered so far in the country.

“That means nearly 6.8 million Americans have received their shots of Johnson & Johnson without experiencing this adverse reaction,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in a press briefing Tuesday.

“I think you’ve always got to be concerned,” said Bill Ruff, a veteran living in Fitchburg, who got his Johnson & Johnson shot at the VA Monday. “And you’ve always got to be concerned about catching the virus.”

“It’s less likely you’d have this side effect from a Johnson & Johnson vaccine than being struck by lightning. Most people are going to do absolutely fine, the far majority of them, and you are now protected from COVID-19, which is a much worse thing to worry about.”

If linked, the blood clots appear to be a very slim risk. But Pothof and other health officials said this could pose a threat to vaccination efforts as a whole.

“It does worry me this could increase vaccine hesitancy,” Pothof said, adding that he’s worried the news will be taken out of context.

“The risk here is that this steers us off course in our vaccination effort,” said Dr. William Hartman, the lead of UW Health’s AstraZeneca vaccine trail, adding that no similar issues have been identified with the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines. “Those continue to be safe and effective, and those same monitoring practices that have identified a potential issue with J&J have not identified similar issues with Moderna and Pfizer over a much larger body of evidence and people and time.”

Public health departments and health systems including UW Health and SSM Health are halting their use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very safe, and there is no reason to worry,” said Mo Kharbat, regional vice president of pharmacy services at SSM Health Wisconsin. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if you look at the rate of these safety events at one in a million, is also considered safe and effective … but I think we should wait until the evaluation is complete.”

Willems Van Dijk said that the pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is out of an “abundance of caution,” giving time to learn more about the potential connection between the vaccines and the blood clots and to alert health providers of symptoms and treatment, which is different than the typical treatment for clots.

“I hope Wisconsinites can hear those kinds of actions as ways to increase safety rather than make them more hesitant or fearful,” she said.

“This is just a reinforcement of how focused the medical community is on safety such that if there was an event that occurs in one out of one million people, they’re still taking the time to look into it and see, is it related to the vaccine? Is it not?,” Pothof said. “That should reassure us that with this vaccine and the others that safety really is the number one priority.”

Pothof said he believes after the vaccine goes under review, it will be administered again in the United States “in a short amount of time.” Willems Van Dijk said they expected the pause to be short, as well.

So far, Ruff hasn’t had any reaction to his vaccine, including the common flu-like symptoms many people get after the shot. He said he’ll monitor himself for symptoms, but isn’t regretting getting his dose.

“I feel good about it,” Ruff said. “I was waiting to get the shot. My wife was pushing me to get the shot, and I got it.”