Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is back online as Oklahoma health leaders stress its safety

Dana Branham

With Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines back online in Oklahoma after a nationwide pause, the next challenge for health officials could be communicating the safety of the one-shot vaccines. 

Oklahoma has already seen a slower pace for vaccinations in recent weeks. And a national poll from The Washington Post and ABC News found that Americans had significantly lower trust in the safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, compared with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, after federal health officials recommended a pause in its use.

It’s understandable for people to have concerns after the Johnson & Johnson pause, which was put in place after the discovery of a small number of cases of a rare blood clotting response in women who had been vaccinated, Dr. Donna Tyungu said during Tuesday’s weekly Healthier Oklahoma Coalition news conference. 

COVID-19:Oklahoma saw about a 40% decline in daily vaccinations, officials say

“It's a pretty major decision to have a pause like that,” said Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health. “But it was literally done for the safety of the population. For me, it just shows how seriously everyone's taking these vaccines and how seriously [officials] are taking the efficacy of the vaccines and the safety.” 

Betsy Mathew administers an injection of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to a client of the Homeless Alliance at the shelter in Oklahoma City on March 12.

COVID-19 vaccine benefits outweigh risks, experts say

The pause gave health officials a chance to get the word out to providers about how to treat the rare clotting disorder and to find any other cases of that response they may have initially missed, Tyungu said. In total, 15 cases were discovered out of nearly 8 million doses administered.

Health officials and experts have underscored that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh any possible risks. 

Oklahoma:State will resume using Johnson & Johnson vaccine after FDA lifts pause

Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of health with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said public confidence in vaccines is always a concern, because vaccine uptake is a crucial part of putting an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reed has pointed to the pause as evidence of a highly-sensitive vaccine monitoring system, but he said he knows not everyone will see it that way.

“Moving forward, I would say to those individuals, we have two other excellent vaccines out there,” Reed said. “We've given millions and millions of doses of both of those. The same type of sensitive monitoring system is tracking those vaccines as well.” 

Reed stressed that the clotting risk with the Johnson & Johnson was “extremely rare” and said it’s still an “extremely safe vaccine.”

The FDA and CDC recommended pausing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 13.

Demand still exists for Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Carter Healthcare, a home health agency based in Oklahoma City, had Johnson & Johnson vaccine supplies on hand for a vaccination event in El Reno on Saturday in partnership with the city. Because the pause lifted Friday night, the site was able to offer both Johnson & Johnson and Moderna shots, said Sue Douglas, a nurse and corporate compliance officer for Carter Healthcare. 

The day of the event, more people seemed to gravitate toward the Moderna shots, Douglas said. But there was demand for the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, too, she said.

More:How do I get a COVID vaccine in Oklahoma? Who's eligible? A guide to getting your shot

“People were still open to the [Johnson & Johnson] even though there was a pause,” Douglas said, adding that people who visited the clinic said they had expected the one-shot vaccine to come back online. 

Adrean Mendoza, of Norman, received his Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine shortly after he became eligible in Phase 3 of the state’s vaccination plan in March. When he learned of the pause, he wasn’t concerned for himself — but he was concerned that it could drive further vaccine hesitancy. 

“I had no concerns about my own health, the health of my coworkers or anyone else who got it,” said Mendoza, 28. “It was all about the fear that this might slow down the vaccination process even more.”

If he had to get the same shot over again, he would, Mendoza said. 

“I know the science backs up that it's completely safe,” he said.