Gov. Polis expects J&J vaccine pause to last ‘days, not weeks’ as Colorado’s COVID-19 positivity surges

Governor stresses importance of having all three authorized vaccines in ‘arsenal’

Being extra cautious Joan Beer made a protective barrier out of cardboard before getting her COVID-19 vaccination shot by nurse Cindy Larson, left, during the mass vaccination event in the parking lots of Coors Field on Jan. 31, 2021. in Denver. UCHealth organized the large-scale COVID-19 vaccination event. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, pool)

Colorado health officials on Tuesday announced that they would pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine at the advice of federal regulators, following reports of six cases of an “extremely rare” blood clotting disorder among the more 6.8 million Americans who have received the one-shot vaccine. But Gov. Jared Polis said that officials at the White House have indicated to him that the pause will last “days, not weeks.”

“That is the very likely scenario,” Polis said in a press conference Tuesday. “We need all three (vaccines) to defeat this virus.”

Polis said that Coloradans who have scheduled an appointment to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should contact their provider. Many, though not all, should be able to keep their appointments and receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine instead, he said.

In a joint statement issued early Tuesday morning, regulators the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “out of an abundance of caution.” Officials say that six recipients of the vaccine, all of whom were women between the ages of 18 and 48, developed blood cots in the weeks after receiving the shot. One of them has died, and a second is hospitalized in critical condition.

Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said he expects that other such cases might be identified in the coming days — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the symptoms and the vaccine are causally linked.

“The first question really is: Are these events coincidental, just happening to follow the vaccine, or are they somehow associated with vaccination?” France said. “We know that this condition among these six women … occurs very rarely. We would expect that a million persons followed for a year would only see 10 to 13 cases occurring.”

In Colorado, 122,280 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been administered as of April 13, according to state data. That’s compared to 1.6 million Pfizer doses and 1.5 million of Moderna doses.

Scientists on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will convene for an emergency meeting on Wednesday to review the available data on possible links between the blood clotting cases and the vaccine.

“From there, they’ll make some decisions, and I expect by the end of the day tomorrow, we’ll be hearing more about recommendations,” said France.

The developments come as Colorado and other states around the country continue to experience a “fourth wave” of COVID-19 infections. The number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado continues to climb, and the state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate has climbed above 5% for the first time since January.

As the state confronts the latest spike in cases, Polis stressed the importance of having all three vaccines as “weapons in our arsenal,” including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which he called “safe and very effective.” He noted that while the rare blood clotting condition had been identified in six out of 6.8 million recipients, COVID-19 itself has claimed the lives of more than 560,000 Americans — meaning that more than 1 in 600 Americans alive at the beginning of 2020 has now died from the virus.

“So while it’s very important to know what the relatively minor risk parameters of the vaccine are,” Polis said, “there are none that even approach two or three orders of magnitude of the risk of the virus.”

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