Iowa health director fears loss of vaccine momentum after J & J pause

By: - April 14, 2021 1:54 pm

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is vaccinated against the coronavirus during a March 3, 2021, press conference at Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Iowa’s top public health official fears that the pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for COVID-19 will lead some skeptics to skip getting any version of the coronavirus vaccine.

Federal health officials called for a temporary halt in injections of the J & J vaccine after six women got a rare and serious form of blood clots.

Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia discusses vaccine refusal rates at a news conference March 17, 2021, at Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

“I am quite concerned about the pause,” Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health told reporters Wednesday. “Some people are going to use it as an excuse to say, ‘See, they didn’t research these vaccines enough.’

“These vaccines are the result of 20 years of research,” Garcia added. 

At her news conference Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said a key federal panel is expected to vote Wednesday afternoon on recommendations related to the J & J vaccine.

“Putting even one vaccine on hold is disappointing, especially as we are fast approaching 2 million doses being given and administered in Iowa,” Reynolds said. “But ensuring a safe vaccination process, one that everyone can be confident in, will continue to be a top priority.”

Pat Winokur is executive dean of the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

Pat Winokur, executive dean of the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, said the research on the COVID-19 vaccines involved far more than the usual testing. “I can assure you, we did not skip any steps in the creations of these vaccines,” Winokur said at Reynolds’ news conference. “Remember, each of these vaccines was tested in 30,000 to 40,000 people. That is 10-fold higher than we typically include in our drug trials.”

“Every drug that we create has rare side effects,” Winokur said. She called the blood clots “a one-in-a-million type of event.”

“Many of you are going to be considering whether you should continue to pursue the COVID-19 vaccine. The answer is yes,” especially when new variants of the coronavirus are spread more easily, Winokur said. 

Flu vaccines also have rare side effects, but are worth the risk given the 45,000 flu deaths per year, she added.

Winokur joined Reynolds and Garcia in recommending Iowans get vaccinated for COVID-19.

“Remember, we still have a pandemic. There is still 500 to 1,000 people dying a day in the United States,” Winokur said. 

Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a few weeks ago should watch for severe headaches, shortness of breath, and abdominal pain, Winokur said. If you have those symptoms, call your doctor’s office, she added. There are special tests to look for the condition.

The blood clot cases in the U.S. involved women between the ages of 18 and 48. The other vaccines have caused mostly harmless side effects such as dull headaches and mild fever in some patients. 

Reynolds and Garcia appealed to Iowans to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Reynolds noted that production problems already had been scheduled to drop Johnson & Johnson deliveries to Iowa to 5,400 doses this week from 45,800 the week before due to production problems. Increased numbers of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will cover the shortfall, Reynolds said. 

Both Garcia and Reynolds received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Both said they had mild side effects such as headaches that went away in a day. “I would do it again,” Reynolds said of receiving the J & J vaccine at a live news conference March 3.

Garcia said she was unsure if the vaccine caused her headaches because she is prone to them in general. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.