We can’t let the J&J ‘pause’ derail our pandemic fight

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Editorials, Opinion

The federal government called for a “pause” on injections of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine this week after six U.S. women between the ages of 18 and 48 experienced a rare, severe form of blood clotting six to 13 days after receiving their inoculations. 

One woman, a 45-year-old from Virginia, has died. Another is in critical condition. And there may be more cases out there we haven’t even heard of. 

It’s concerning — especially for young women who recently received the J&J COVID-19 vaccine — but the nationwide call to stop using the vaccine until medical professionals have taken a more in-depth look at what’s happening should make us feel more secure in our nation’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. 

As it turns out, one of the main reasons for the pause was to alert doctors that they should not use the common blood thinner heparin to treat the form of blood clotting in the brain seen after the J&J vaccine, as heparin could make the problem even worse. 

As a vascular medicine specialist told the Detroit Free Press this week: What we are learning about these blood clots and how they might be associated with the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada and Europe and now it sounds like potentially with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine here is, we actually need … to use a different form of a blood thinner. That’s sort of the critical piece for doctors to know about.”

“We see patients who get this sort of allergic reaction, you might call it, to heparin all the time,” the doctor added. “But what’s interesting here is it seems to have developed in people who never got heparin before. And so because we’re aware of this, now we know how to immediately jump in and use some non-heparin blood thinners.”

From the information available, the risks of actually experiencing this type of blood clotting disorder are incredibly rare: The J&J vaccine has been given to about seven million people, with just six known cases of the blood clotting disorder. Likewise, in Europe, there are 79 cases of blood clots that have occurred after more than 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine were administered. European Union drug officials this week confirmed the link between the blood clot cases and the vaccine, and most EU countries have recommended younger women receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which have not been linked to any blood clotting disorders. 

The actual risk of dying from a blood clot linked to the COVID-19 vaccines is roughly one in a million. So how does that compare to other health hazards? According to the National Safety Council, Americans are much more likely to die after getting struck by  lightning (1 in 138,849), being attacked by a dog (1 in 86,781), in a cataclysmic storm (1 in 55,869), in a fire (1 in 1,547), of a gun assault (1 in 289), in a car crash (1 in 107), of an opioid overdose (1 in 92), from cancer (1 in 7) or of heart disease (1 in 6) than they are from a rare vaccine reaction. 

Likewise, people assigned female at birth face blood-clotting risks when they take birth control pills, become pregnant and give birth by cesarean section. Recent studies suggest the risk of developing a blood clot after a C-section is about 3 in 1,000. 

We all face the risk of developing dangerous blood clots when we smoke, are overweight, get older, or sit for an extended period of time. 

Still, it’s understandable that many of us will be distressed and worried about the J&J vaccine pause. After all, this medicine is supposed to help get us out of the worst global pandemic anyone younger than 102 has ever experienced — a pandemic that has infected more than 137 million people, caused untold damage to people’s long-term health (studies suggest COVID-19 may lead to heart issues, even in people who only had a mild form of the coronavirus) and led to nearly three million deaths, including more than half a million deaths in our own country.

Hearing that these vaccines carry a risk, albeit a much smaller risk than some of our daily activities, like sitting at a desk for eight hours of driving home from work, may be enough to persuade people to forego COVID-19 vaccinations. And that is truly scary to think about. Because if we don’t all do whatever we can to stop this pandemic — including getting vaccinated as soon as possible, continuing to wear masks to protect our community’s unvaccinated residents and children — COVID-19 will likely continue to mutate until it discovers a way around our vaccines or even finds a way to harm the healthiest and youngest among us. In fact, Pfizer and Moderna are already testing a third “booster” vaccine that might be needed to fight current COVID-19 variants.

And for those who oppose the COVID-19 vaccines and who will inevitably write to tell me I’m not doing enough research, let me assure you that I am writing this as someone who has done her research. When my daughter was a toddler, she experienced a (thankfully harmless) febrile seizure after one of her vaccinations. Despite the doctors’ assurances that she was fine, I feared giving her another vaccine and, over the course of several years, researched everything I could get my hands on related to children and inoculations. Studies showing a bout of measles can “wipe out the body’s immune memory,” putting my child in even more danger — as well as several in-depth conversations with health care providers I trusted — helped me get past my fears about the very rare possibility that a vaccine might do more harm than the disease it prevents.

This week, I waited outside the Oregon Convention Center while my now-young-adult daughter received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I wasn’t worried for her. Instead, I was happy to know she will soon be protected against the COVID-19 mutations like the UK variant that seem to be putting younger people more at risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19

It is completely understandable that the J&J news may make many young women think twice about taking that particular COVID-19 vaccine and perhaps send them in search of a Pfizer or Moderna shot, which have not been connected to any blood clotting disorders).  

But we should all hope the majority of Camas-Washougal residents will view the “pause” as a product of a functioning federal government that is able to respond to safety issues instead of, as we saw with the former administration, covering them up or pretending they don’t even exist

~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor