With a third COVID-19 vaccine soon to be available in Massachusetts, state officials and community leaders Monday sought to discourage residents from “shopping” for one brand over another, stressing that all are highly protective against serious disease from the coronavirus.
The assurances stemmed from apparent concern the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a one-shot formula officials view as ideal for hard-to-reach populations, might be regarded as an inferior product — especially by marginalized communities distrustful of the health care system.
“People don’t need to pick one from another,” Governor Charlie Baker said after touring a vaccination site at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan on Monday morning. “People should get vaccinated. If you have a chance to get a vaccine, you should take it — whatever it is.”
The governor’s remarks were echoed by Bishop John M. Borders III, the church’s senior pastor, who said his parishioners wouldn’t be “picking or choosing what company they’re going to receive the vaccination” from. Church and community leaders in high-risk communities, such as Mattapan, have been working to counter vaccine hesitancy and misinformation about the shots being offered.
“All of these vaccinations keep people out of the hospital,” Borders said. “They keep people from being sick for a long period of time. Anyone coming here at Morning Star will not be asking ‘what vaccination product will you be using.’”
The new vaccine was only one part of the state’s fast-changing COVID-19 response Monday, as Baker also defended his decision to move forward with a reopening plan despite words of caution over the weekend from public health experts. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both warned that states rolling back restrictions could face a virus resurgence.
Baker said Massachusetts officials concluded “it was appropriate to make some adjustments“ because the number of infections and hospitalizations have dropped substantially over the past two months as the state has ramped up its campaign to vaccinate residents. So far, 1.2 million first vaccine doses and 547,061 second doses have been given in Massachusetts.
Walensky, formerly the head of infectious diseases at Mass General, reiterated her warning to states that were relaxing their lockdown orders even though there are still thousands of cases a day being reported.
“I understand the temptation to do this,” Walensky said of easing public health measures. “Seventy thousand cases a day seems good compared to where we were just a few months ago. But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths. Please hear me clearly.”
J&J’s vaccine, cleared for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday, is key to Baker’s plan to accelerate vaccine distribution. Alex Gorsky, the J&J chief executive, Monday said the company planned to ship 3.9 million doses to states in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Baker said a modest but unspecified number of J&J doses will be distributed across mass vaccinations sites, regional collaboratives, hospitals, and community health centers.
Hospital leaders say they’ll inject patients with whatever brand they’re sent. “Our hospitals are ready and able to deliver any vaccine that is provided by the state,” said Valerie Fleishman, senior vice president and chief innovation officer of the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
Federal and state officials see the single-shot J&J vaccine, which doesn’t require ultra-cold storage, as especially important in reaching populations such as home-bound residents, people living in remote rural areas, and those getting shots at smaller community facilities that lack the specialized freezers available at hospitals or larger sites.
“Having multiple types of vaccine available, especially ones with different dosing regimens and different storing and handling, offers more flexibility,” Walensky said at a Monday press briefing of the White House COVID-19 Response Team. “For example, clinics and mass vaccination sites that do not have freezer capacity may be able to use the [J&J] vaccine, increasing access to more communities.”
Government and health officials, seeking to capitalize on that flexibility, were also at pains to downplay differences in the reported clinical data among the three vaccines.
In large-scale clinical trials, J&J’s vaccine was 72 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe disease in the United States, and 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death. By contrast, in clinical studies, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — cleared for emergency use in December — prevented 95 percent of virus cases altogether.
But the Pfizer and Moderna studies took place last fall before resistant variants emerged, and health officials think their results would be somewhat less effective now — though still protective against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
“There is confusion, and that is because the numbers are not identical,” said Dr. Barry Bloom, professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But if I was offered any one of the three, I would not hesitate to take it. The point of the vaccine is to prevent people from dying, and all three of the vaccines show they can do that.”
Government officials and public health figures are also making a concerted effort to allay suspicions, especially among people of color, that they might be getting a second-tier vaccine if J&J doses are sent to their communities.
Baker raised the issue on a recent conference call between governors and Biden administration officials, the Washington Post reported Monday. The report, citing unnamed sources, said the Massachusetts governor warned that some could feel they weren’t getting “the good stuff” unless officials clearly communicated the effectiveness of all three vaccines. Baker administration officials said they couldn’t confirm the report.
White House officials are clearly eager to head off any perception they may be planning to channel a less-effective COVID-19 vaccine into Black and Brown communities. “All vaccines will reach all communities,” Marcella Nunez-Smith, who heads the Biden administration’s coronavirus equity task force, said during the Monday briefing.
Because vaccines remain in short supply in the United States, there’s been little evidence of vaccine shopping. But preferences have cropped up in Europe, driven partly by nationalism — with some Britons clamoring for an AstraZeneca vaccine developed at Oxford University and some Germans for the Pfizer vaccine developed with German partner BioNTech — and partly by a hunt for the most effective shot possible.
With the introduction of the J&J vaccine, which uses a different technology than Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, there’s fear that shopping could slow the vaccination drive here.
Indeed, some Massachusetts residents who’ve closely tracked clinical data are already debating the benefits and drawbacks of the different vaccines, mostly with their families.
“I’d always had an inclination toward Pfizer, but my wife tells me there’s no difference between Pfizer and Moderna,” said Spence Ford, a retired mechanical engineer from Hingham who received the Moderna vaccine at Gillette Stadium last Friday. His wife, Susan Goldsmith, 65, and his in-laws are scheduled to get the Pfizer vaccine in Boston.
Ford said he’s pondering whether to recommend the J&J vaccine for his adult children and their spouses, none of whom is currently eligible to be inoculated in Massachusetts. “I see how important it is in getting people vaccinated,” he said.
Given the difficulty booking any vaccine appointment now, some residents have concluded they can’t afford to be picky.
“If you want to get back to normal, you just take the shot they give you,” said Debbie West, 60, a physical therapist from Barnstable. As a front-line health worker, West said, she’s eager to get vaccinated, no matter what brand they put in her arm.
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.