Feds Address Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy in the Wake of J&J Pause

Officials hope for renewed confidence in the “safety system,” and highlight the role health care access can play in vaccine hesitancy. 

In this April 1, 2021 file photo, people walk in to get their COVID-19 vaccine at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(CN) — In the aftermath of the United States’ plan to pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, questions about how the news will affect vaccine hesitancy have swirled around communities, in the media and across the internet. 

The concern is that hitting pause on the J&J vaccine could dissuade people from getting vaccinated, particularly those already unsure about getting a shot. 

Federal officials seek to reframe that notion. Rather than signaling danger, they say, this week’s decision should reassure the public. It means regulators caught potential issues early, after just six people experienced severe blood clotting issues after getting the J&J shot. 

Roughly 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been given out in the U.S. since the shot was authorized for emergency use in February. The rare blood clot cases were all in women, between the ages of 18 and 48, and symptoms showed up 6 to 13 days after vaccination. 

“What you’ve seen just over the last few days is a really concerted effort, not only to do the safety investigation, but to communicate openly and transparently with people about what’s going on,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, during a press briefing on Friday. 

The pause, officials said, serves three purposes: It alerts health care providers to be on the lookout for rare blood clotting events, gives time for potential additional cases to be reported and allows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s committee of experts to review the vaccine’s safety. 

A go-to treatment for blood clotting issues, a drug called heparin cannot be used to treat the clots that have shown up after J&J vaccination, another reason officials need time to communicate best practices to health care personnel. 

“This is your safety system working for you,” Murthy said. 

The pause, though, presents an opportunity to fuel the message of people already opposed to Covid-19 vaccination. 

“I think the opponents of the vaccine are going to take advantage of it, and probably already have,” said Sharona Hoffman, a professor of health law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, in a phone interview. 

Hoffman said she doubts that people who were already planning on getting vaccinated will be deterred. 

“That seems pretty unlikely,” she said, since J&J isn’t being offered for the time being, and Pfizer and Moderna vaccines remain available. 

Before the pause, J&J, the most recently approved of the three vaccines, made up less than 5% of shots given out in the U.S. Officials say that while transitioning away from J&J could cause some delays in the short-term, supply won’t be an issue. 

Hoffman agreed with the notion that people should gain confidence in the vaccine approval process following this week’s news. 

She said that the amount of media attention the pause has gotten, and how it’s portrayed, may exacerbate vaccine hesitancy, however, “and that’s problematic.” 

Vaccination, combined with the natural immunity of people who have recovered from the coronavirus, will ultimately end the Covid-19 pandemic, experts say. 

“If we want to get back to normal life, vaccines are the pathway” to ending the pandemic, Hoffman said. “We’re really not going to get over it unless we achieve herd immunity.” 

The continued spread of the virus creates opportunities for the virus to mutate, creating new variants — including, possibly, those that are resistant to vaccines. The Biden administration on Friday recently put $1.7 billion toward studies of viral genomes, to help detect virus variants before they emerge and spread through populations. 

Questions about Safety and Access 

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy outlined a new partnership with sports leagues and community groups encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. (Credit: White House via Courthouse News)

While U.S. government officials seem to be betting on the J&J vaccine pause to bolster, rather than diminish, confidence in the system, how exactly Americans will react remains to be seen. 

Europe could perhaps serve as a case study for what can happen to vaccine confidence when a country pauses use of a vaccine. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine was recently paused in more than a dozen European countries, based on concerns about the same type of blood clot associated with the J&J vaccine, known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. 

Although the vaccine was re-implemented in many countries within a few days, March polling data showed a dropoff in confidence in the vaccine’s safety in Spain, Germany, France and Italy, Reuters reported. 

Poll participants in those countries were more likely to see the AstraZeneca vaccine as unsafe than as safe, according to an 8,000-person survey conducted in seven European countries. 

Asked about whether the J&J pause could have a similar effect in the U.S., Surgeon General Murthy said providing information can help to ease concerns. 

“We recognize that for some people it will raise questions, and we want to answer those questions,” Murthy said.

He cited his office’s Covid-19 Community Corps, a partnership with organizations of faith, sports, and community-based organizations, aiming to reach and encourage communities to get vaccinated. Partners include the American Medical Association, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and the NAACP.

Murthy also pointed out that it’s not just information that can curb hesitancy. It’s also access. 

The surgeon general noted that American Indian and Alaskan Native populations, who are at a higher risk for illness and complications from Covid-19, also face limited health care access and significant health disparities. The Biden administration is putting funds toward expanding access, including ramping up telehealth. 

“I want to emphasize one point in particular about vaccines, which isn’t always so obvious,” Murthy said Friday. “Increasing access to vaccines is critical for increasing confidence in vaccines.” 

“The more people see those around them get vaccinated, particularly family and friends, the more comfortable they become with getting vaccinated themselves,” he continued. The more available vaccines are, the more likely that dynamic is to trend toward universal vaccination. 

“Access and confidence go hand-in-hand,” Murthy said. 

Indeed, as vaccines have become available to more Americans over the past few months, hesitancy has dropped overall, according to data from the end of March by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Republicans and white evangelical Christians were the most likely to say they will not get a vaccine; almost 30% of each group said they would “definitely not” get a shot. Those against vaccination made up 13% of poll respondents. 

Adults ages 18-29 and Black adults were most likely to be in the cohort of people wanting to wait and see how others respond to vaccines before deciding whether to get one. That group has dropped gradually between January and March, now at about 17% of survey-takers.  

Kim Litwack, professor and dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s College of Nursing, said she’s seen a dropoff in vaccine hesitancy in recent months at vaccination clinics. 

People “quickly got in line” as they became eligible to get vaccinated, Litwack said, with the numbers slowing down slightly after initial rushes for each new group approved. 

Being able to be together with family is a driving factor, she said, especially now that more entire family groups are being vaccinated. That means weddings put off for the pandemic are being rescheduled, and grandparents are being reunited with their grandchildren. 

Litwack also noted that millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses have been given out safely. She called it one of the safest and most widely distributed vaccines in history. 

Given that data, and the opportunities to reunite with family and friends afforded by the vaccine, she said, “people shouldn’t hesitate.”

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