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Sonoma County authorizes resumed use of Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine

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Following the lead of federal and state health officials, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase announced Monday she was immediately reauthorizing the local use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, which had been suspended since April 13 after it was linked to a small number of severe blood clots.

The move again gives the county three alternatives in its effort to vaccinate residents against a pathogen that continues to infiltrate the community at significant rates. Having a third viable option looms as especially crucial in light of the spread of genetic variants of the virus, some of them potentially more resistant to specific vaccines.

And while Johnson & Johnson has never made up more than a small percentage of the overall vaccine supply coming into Sonoma County, its one-dose regimen and forgiving storage requirements make it ideal for vaccinating hard-to-reach groups such as homeless residents and people with mobility issues.

One group handling many of those vaccinations here, Fox Home Health, had shifted to using the two-dose Moderna vaccine for homeless populations during the two-week suspension for the Johnson & Johnson shots.

“Checking with the Department of Public Health, we were feeling as though it was better to risk unsheltered people not getting a second dose than for them to go without getting vaccinated at all,” said Cheryl Fox, the group’s president and CEO.

Fox wasn’t sure how many doses of Johnson & Johnson her organization was holding, but said she had absolute confidence in the vaccine’s safety.

“You have to do your own risk-benefit analysis, and is the risk of getting COVID is greater than the risk of adverse effects from a vaccine,” Fox said. “To some extent, you don’t know what will happen with the vaccine. But you know if it’s not death from COVID, it’s often long-term effects. You know that will happen.”

As the county noted in a press release Monday, the risk of death among those with a confirmed case of COVID-19 is 1 in 56. Meanwhile, there had been only 15 confirmed cases of the clotting event in those vaccinated with J&J, among nearly 8 million total doses administered — a rate of 1 in more than 500,000. And only three of those people died.

The county, however, was not tallying a case reported over the weekend by the San Francisco Chronicle. Unlike the 15 previously identified blood clots associated with Johnson & Johnson, this patient is male, a Bay Area resident in his early 30s who was vaccinated through UCSF. He is currently hospitalized.

Still, health authorities have judged that any potential risks are outweighed by the benefit of deploying the J&J shots. After a lengthy evaluation of the blood clot risk by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and the crafting of guidance to help prepare vaccinators for potential emergencies, the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration jointly recommended the restart of J&J on Friday.

The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, which includes scientists representing California, made a similar announcement Saturday. Sonoma County followed suit two days after that.

The county and its vaccination partners have been refrigerating about 3,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson, said Ken Tasseff, the county’s site coordinator. Those providers are free to use the vaccine moving forward. The county will not get any new J&J this week, Tasseff said. Wednesday, he’ll find out the allotment for next week.

More than 12,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson have been administered thus far in the county, with no reported adverse effects.

Providence Medical Group, which owns Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, currently has 280 doses of J&J for Sonoma County, according to Brandi Lazorek, COO for the group’s Northern California region. Providence will begin administering those doses sometime in the next two weeks.

Sutter Health said it will start using Johnson & Johnson again this week. But Kaiser Permanente, which has delivered more shots of coronavirus vaccine in Sonoma County than any other provider, will not immediately lift its pause on J&J.

“Before we resume use of the vaccine, we will be reviewing all available data, including forthcoming interim clinical considerations from the CDC,” Kaiser said in a statement.

Anyone who receives Johnson & Johnson should contact their primary health care provider if they experience severe symptoms of headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination.

While there is seemingly unanimous support of the J&J vaccine among health officials, some worry about public acceptance. Many people had already harbored wariness about J&J, because of initial reports of efficacy rates lower than those of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — in proper context, that gap narrows considerably — or perhaps due to less rational fears. Now vaccinators must overcome the wariness generated by alarming news segments during the safety pause.

“People are hesitant,” said Fox, the Fox Home Health chief. “They were hesitant before, and this will only increase it.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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