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NC, SC To Pause Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccines After Federal Recommendation

North Carolina and South Carolina health officials said on Tuesday that the states will pause administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. This comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration urged providers to temporarily stop giving the vaccine out of an “abundance of caution” while federal officials conduct an investigation into reports of apparently rare, potentially dangerous blood clots.

"Our primary concern is the health and safety of all North Carolinians," North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. "Out of an abundance of caution, we ... have paused the administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine until we learn more. The safety system in place is working as it should."

Health officials in North Carolina said those with appointments for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will have those appointments rescheduled.

South Carolina's health department also said it would at least temporarily halt the administration of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. South Carolina had been receiving a "small amount" of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from the federal government, the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control said in a statement, so the pause will have "less of an impact."

Dr. Edward Simmer, South Carolina’s health director, said outside a federal COVID-19 vaccine site that about 95% or more of the state's vaccination sites are not giving out Johnson & Johnson vaccines, The State newspaper reported.

Mecklenburg County Public Health and Charlotte's two largest hospital systems, Atrium Health and Novant Health, also announced on Tuesday that they would pause their administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“We are unaware of any similar complications in a patient that’s received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in our patient population here at Novant Health,” Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease specialist at Novant Health, told reporters Tuesday morning.

Priest said patients who had vaccine appointments for Johnson & Johnson scheduled for Tuesday would be offered the Pfizer vaccine instead.

“If you’ve received Johnson & Johnson vaccine and it’s been more than two weeks since you had it, we do not believe there’s anything to be concerned about,” Priest said. But, he added, anyone who received the vaccine less than two weeks ago should “monitor for unusual symptoms” like a persistent headache, visual changes, weakness of the face or limbs or swelling of the extremities and contact their doctor if they have concerns.

“These events were incredibly rare but they’re serious so we want to be careful and err on the side of caution,” Priest said.

In Mecklenburg County, county health officials will switch to either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines for all scheduled appointments and events. The county had planned to use Johnson & Johnson doses to vaccinate about 70 homebound residents this week and up to 2,000 people at a Saturday vaccination clinic at Charlotte's Camp North End, according to county medical director Dr. Meg Sullivan.

"Currently we have sufficient vaccine with Pfizer and Moderna to get through our clinics this week and to address the appointments that we already have," Gibbie Harris, Mecklenburg County's Health Director, told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Novant Health, based in Winston-Salem but with a large presence in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, has administered roughly 22,500 doses of Johnson & Johnson, according to Priest. Across North Carolina, at least 242,762 doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered, according to numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, which were last updated on Monday.

Atrium Health said in a statement that the pause "will not affect current vaccination appointments at Atrium Health" because no Johnson & Johnson vaccine appointments were scheduled "for the near future."

Dr. Katie Passaretti, Atrium Health's medical director for infection prevention, emphasized that the blood clot side effects are "extremely rare." She said that none of the reported cases have been in North Carolina, according to what she has been told by state officials. Passaretti urged people to continue to sign up for Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations.

"My biggest concern is that vaccine hesitancy just skyrocketed," Passaretti said, adding that the vaccines are "still very much a needed intervention."

Priest said the pause at Novant will continue until the FDA and CDC issue an update on the pause. A statement on Tuesday said that the CDC would convene an advisory committee on Wednesday to “review these cases and assess their potential significance,” NPR reported.

On Thursday, a clinic in the Raleigh area briefly stopped using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after 18 people had reactions, including four who were taken to a hospital. More than 2,300 of the vaccines had been given that day, so the bad reactions were reported in less than 1% of those who were given shots. It's unclear if that's related to the federal recommendation.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.