South Carolina and other states paused the administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the recommendation of federal agencies, raising questions about what will change in the continuing vaccination process in Horry County and elsewhere.
The short answer: not much.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested halting the Johnson & Johnson distribution after six women developed blood clots shortly after getting the shot, a tiny sample of the more than 6.8 million Johnson & Johnson doses given. Following the guidelines, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control stopped administration of the brand’s dose, at least for now.
“The FDA and CDC have recommended a pause. We are certainly going to follow that,” South Carolina’s health director Dr. Edward Simmer said Tuesday.
How many Johnson & Johnson doses have been given in SC and Horry County?
The federal agencies stressed that the decision was out of “an abundance of caution” and state and federal officials have been clear that the majority of doses are coming from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, with Johnson & Johnson only making up around 8% of doses administered across South Carolina.
Horry County follows that trend. Of more than 128,000 people vaccinated in the county, only 6,172 received the Johnson & Johnson shot, according to DHEC. That’s 4.8% of people who received their dose in Horry County.
Only three of nearly 40 vaccine sites in the county offer Johnson & Johnson doses, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s vaccine locator. All of the sites listed as Johnson & Johnson providers also offer Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna as well.
Dr. Brannon Traxler, interim public health director of DHEC, said many independent pharmacies were deemed vaccination sites for the Johnson & Johnson brand of the vaccine and are now switching to either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. That requires ensuring the vaccine sites have the capability to keep the vaccines in ultra-cold storage and handle the necessary second-dose appointments.
She stressed that people who had an appointment for a Johnson & Johnson vaccine should contact the provider to see if they’ll be able to get another brand’s shot or if their appointment would be canceled. She advised not to wait to get a vaccine and that Pfizer and Moderna are very safe and haven’t resulted in the same reports seen in the Johnson & Johnson.
Vaccine sites change to Pfizer and Moderna
Halting the Johnson & Johnson administration has raised concerns about how to continue to vaccinate hard-to-reach groups that may not have the flexibility or reliable transportation required for the second dose appointment of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. Traxler said DHEC will continue to consider more opportunities for vaccination and work with communities seeing low vaccination rates.
Ela Clarida, operations manager at Coastal Concierge Medicine in North Myrtle Beach, said the pause was “quite a big deal” for the healthcare provider. Even though her site was giving both Johnson & Johnson and Moderna doses, she said many people sought out the Johnson & Johnson in particular. The site has administered around 120 vaccines, around 100 of which were Johnson & Johnson.
“I think the biggest difference between that and the other two on the market is that people want the one shot instead of having to come back in 30 days and get the second shot,” she said.
Clarida noted that over the last few days, she’s heard some concern from people about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but others have asked if they could sign a waiver and receive the shot anyway, even though they were offered Moderna as an alternative. If the FDA and CDC deem the shot safe, Coastal Concierge Medicine will resume the Johnson & Johnson shots, she said. There haven’t been any extremely adverse reactions to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at that site, and Clarida reminded people that some minor reactions to the shot are normal, such as a low-grade fever or arm soreness.
How does the pause affect places seeing slow vaccination rates?
In Horry County, rural areas have lagged behind the coastal cities in vaccination rates, a trend that continues across South Carolina. After the pause of the Johnson & Johnson doses, Traxler said many rural vaccination sites will pivot to distribute Moderna doses instead. Moderna doses can stay at room temperature longer than the Pfizer doses while still being safe, Traxler said, which offers more flexibility for the vaccine sites.
“What we ask of the local leaders [in rural areas] is very much similar to what we were talking about in any community, that is to help us get the message that these are safe and effective and can be trusted,” Traxler said. “They are a valuable part of us stopping the spread of this virus and disease in our state, protecting ourselves, those around us and helping us get back to normal.”
All South Carolina residents 16 and older are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. To find vaccine sites near you visit https://vaxlocator.dhec.sc.gov/ or call 1-866-365-8110.