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Health Officials Predict Minor Local Impacts From Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Pause

Maggie Nelson/KUCB

State health officials have asked Alaska vaccine providers to follow federal recommendations to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines due to a clotting risk. More than 7 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered across the U.S., but a handful of women have gotten a blood clot afterward, prompting the pause. In Unalaska, however, that halt is not expected to have much of an effect on the city's vaccination effort, according to local health officials.

"I think in the grand scheme of vaccination, it's not going to change things much," said Megan Sarnecki medical director and family medicine physician for the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic. "[The pause] came on relatively late. We didn't have very many [Johnson & Johnson] doses. And luckily, we've already given out a lot of vaccinations [in general]." 

IFHS gets much more vaccine from Moderna and Pfizer, said Sarnecki. And the state allocation to Unalaska of Johnson & Johnson mainly goes to Discovery Health MD, which administers vaccines to industry workers on the island. The Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine is ideal for people in the fishing industry, she said.

"Oftentimes, they have boats that come in, and they really can't come back three or four weeks later because they're out fishing," Sarnecki said. "Or they might not even be in the region anymore."

Andrew Eaton is the director for clinical compliance and special projects for Discovery Health. He said the company, which helped develop a mobile vaccine consortium for industry workers in Unalaska, has vaccinated roughly 2,200 people on the island. Including a clinic they helped coordinate with Safeway, he said they've administered about 1,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The rest he said, were given Moderna.

Credit Courtesy of Discovery Health MD
Andee Vaughan is a registered nurse with Discovery Health. With the help of volunteers and clinic and fire department staff, she's helped administer over 2,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to industry workers on the island.

He agreed that Johnson & Johnson is an ideal vaccine for industry workers. And while they have encountered some resistance when switching from Johnson & Johnson to Moderna — mainly due to the difficulty of coordinating a second dose — he said the pause hasn't slowed things down too much.

And if there were an opportune time for the vaccine to be paused and reviewed, he said it's now.

"We just had the majority of the fleet start to head back down south," Eaton said. "We got the majority of them, already, either a dose of Johnson & Johnson or their first dose of Moderna."

Sarnecki estimated the IFHS clinic has fewer than five doses of Johnson & Johnson on hand. She said they mainly have Moderna, which is much better suited for an Aleutian island 800 air miles from Anchorage. Moderna can be refrigerated for one month as opposed to Pfizer, which can only be kept for five days in refrigeration.

Lori Jackson, a nurse practitioner and medical director of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association said locally, they've administered 97 doses of Johnson & Johnson and just over 1,700 vaccines total. They've removed all of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from their inventory and will continue administering Moderna, she said.

While it seems that Unalaskans won't see much of an effect in the halt on Johnson & Johnson, Sarnecki said it's unfortunate to lose another vaccine option.

"Sometimes people might be either waiting to get their vaccine, or they're vaccine hesitant, but then something comes up, and they're like, 'I want to get it before I go do X or Y,'" she said. "And so it was kind of a nice option for those folks. I am suspecting maybe it's an option for people who also really, really hate needles and having one shot instead of two would be a big deal for them."

Sarnecki said pulling the vaccine shows that the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are proceeding with great caution. Though, she said she hopes the pause will not stop anyone from considering getting a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

"So many millions of doses of these vaccines have been given out and we have had time to see what happens," Sarnecki said. "And the likelihood of a vaccine having an adverse event that hits you more than three or four months after the vaccine, that is just unheard of."

As of Wednesday, almost 3,500 people have been fully vaccinated locally, according to the city's COVID news release. About 75% of those doses were administered by IFHS or Eastern Aleutian Tribes, and the remainder were through APIA.

APIA is holding a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic this Saturday at Unalaska's Community Center from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Anyone over the age of 18 who has not been vaccinated and would like to be is invited to attend.

For more information, call the Oonalaska Wellness Center at 581-2742.

Lori Jackson said 16 and 17-year-old youth interested in getting a vaccine should call 907-359-6640.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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