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Dr. Richard Carmona

The Arizona Department of Health Services recommends resuming the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after the CDC and FDA safety review Sunday.

On Friday, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to recommend the J&J vaccine, but members wanted clear messaging about the possible risks for women younger than 50 years old.

On April 13, the CDC and FDA recommended pausing the vaccine after six reported cases of a rare adverse event among women developed blood clotting with low blood platelets after receiving J&J. The CDC determined the event is rare, occurring at a rate of 7 per 1 million vaccinated women between the age of 18 to 49.

“After recommending a pause out of an abundance of caution, we join our federal partners in encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19 with the vaccine available to you,” ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said. “Arizonans can be confident that all COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, have undergone a thorough review for safety and efficacy. The federal review will continue on all of the vaccines as more people are vaccinated.”

Arizona has allocated 226,300 vaccine doses of J&J and administered approximately 122,000. Local health departments paused the use of the J&J vaccine, which was being used in hard-to-reach communities. Pima County had allocated the use of J&J for their mobile clinics, targeting minority and vulnerable communities.

The Pima County Health Department will resume the use of J&J along with “any approved vaccine at our disposal,” said Health Department spokesman Aaron Pacheco.

The county will continue to offer the vaccine at mobile sites, but as supply increases would also offer it at larger locations that have requested it, including TMC One, “so it is no longer being specifically targeted for only mobile events or hard to reach populations,” Pacheco said.

As health departments grapple with the vaccine hesitancy, especially after the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Pacheco said the county looks to address “the risk vs. benefit reality of the vaccine.”

“Every medical treatment or procedure has a measurement of risk. In this case, that risk is incredibly low, while the benefit and efficacy of the vaccine is incredibly high. It is also important to share that the system in place to identify and respond to potential risks is strong. That is why this issue was identified so quickly,” Pacheco said.

The county is sharing the FDA Fact Sheet, with updated information addressing the concerns that led to the pause. The county has about 12,600 J&J vaccine doses as of Monday.

Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general and UA Task Force director, said it remains unclear whether the blood clotting is directly related to the vaccine “but the benefit of this vaccine is enough that we all agreed that it should go back to market.”

“We need to get this vaccine back out there because it is a very effective vaccine,” said Carmona.

However, vaccine demand has stalled nationwide and in the state with tens of thousands of appointments available at state vaccination sites last week.

“As a number of daily vaccinations at large PODs, like the one at the university, decline and as the PODs are being decommissioned, outreach to rural and other underserved communities is going to become even more important,” said Robbins.

He points to the work of the Mobile Health Program at the university, which has dispensed more than 10,000 doses of vaccine across the state. Robbins announced the university is working with the Santa Cruz County Health Department and the Mexican Consulate of Nogales to host a clinic on April 28 that will vaccinate about 150 truck drivers who transport produce and other goods in Arizona and across the nation.

As Sunday, the UA POD has administered 194,729 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, with about 27.3% identified as Hispanic or Latinx and more than half identified as White, non-Hispanic.

However, the state COVID-19 transmission level continues to be above 50 per 100,000 residents, increasing for the week of April 11 to 71 cases per 100,000 residents. In his April 23 COVID-19 update, Associate Professor of Public Health Policy and Management Dr. Joe K. Gerald said the rate is slowly increasing by about 6 cases per 100,000 residents per week.

The rate of transmission also increased slightly from last week to 1.02 in the zip code 85719—the area surrounding the university—and in the state to 1.14 for April 23. However, the percent of COVID-19 positivity continues to remain at 1.7% for the university, with more than 260,000 tests conducted on campus since August.

Carmona emphasizes vaccinations to quickly stop transmissibility, especially with existing variants.

“Not only to protect yourself, but to protect the nation and the world, get a vaccine because if we can prevent that virus from getting into another body where it might make a mutation, that becomes consequential, then we have problems. So get your vaccines as quickly as possible,” said Carmona.

Preliminary results from the University of Arizona student survey show that almost half of the students who responded have been vaccinated.

The survey sent out on April 15 asked students about their vaccine participation and barriers they may face in getting vaccinated. As of Monday, more than 5,000 students have responded to the survey, with about half saying they received the first dose, said Vice President of Communications Holly Jensen. Students still have time to submit responses to the survey.

“There is clearly going to be a subset, just like there is in society at large for medical reasons, valid medical reasons, aren't going to take the vaccine, and for a variety of other reasons, but we think that number is going to be quite low compared to the general population,” said UA President Robert C. Robbins.

On Thursday, the UA POD announced they would accept no-appointment walk-ins as vaccine demand stalls.

Jensen clarified walk-ins without appointments are available at the drive-thru and in-door location in the Ina E. Gittings Building.

Due to the heat, the UA POD will discontinue the drive thru on May 3, with the last day of drive-thru vaccinations offered May 2. The vaccination efforts will continue at the Ina E. Gittings Building.

Appointments continue to be offered at podvaccine.azdhs.gov or by calling 602-542-1000 or 844-542-8201 to receive assistance in English or Spanish. Last Thursday the UA POD opened 7,000 vaccine appointments for this week.

Without great demand for the vaccine, Carmona said they continue to monitor volunteer and staffing needs, but may not need any more volunteers.

“At this point, we're not recruiting anybody else, but we are standing ready should something happen we can surge up again or we can continue to demobilize as we move forward and hopefully that's the direction we're going to take,” said Carmona.          

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