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CORONAVIRUS

R.I. vaccine subcommittee was ‘blindsided’ by news of state lifting pause on Johnson & Johnson shot

The state health director, in consultation with the Governor’s team, and support from other health department staff, made the final call.

When Rhode Island state health officials announced late Monday that they would resume administering the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, members of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee were “blindsided by the news.”
When Rhode Island state health officials announced late Monday that they would resume administering the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, members of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee were “blindsided by the news.”Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Island state health officials announced late Monday that they would resume administering the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, members of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee were “blindsided by the news.”

“I thought we would be talking about it” during Tuesday morning’s scheduled biweekly meeting, said Dr. Karen Tashima, director of clinical trials at the Immunology Center at Lifespan Corporation, and member of the subcommittee.

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a physician and subcommittee member, said members were surprised the news came out the night before, without input from the subcommittee.

The subcommittee has helped make decisions throughout the state’s vaccination rollout. While the committee is part of the state health department, it had helped made the decision to accept recommendations from the federal government to pause the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearly two weeks ago.

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Both Connecticut and Massachusetts have already resumed administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The subcommittee was created in October 2020 in anticipation of the vaccination rollout, and includes epidemiologists, primary care providers, pharmacists, pediatricians, community leaders from across the state, members of the state health department and other state agencies, school leaders, nonprofit executives, and others to “advise on how to prioritize distribution of the vaccine to ensure that it is done equitably, and in a way that best protects the state as a whole.”

Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state health department, told the Globe in an email Tuesday that the decision to align Rhode Island with federal guidance on Monday was made by state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, in consultation with Governor Daniel J. McKee’s team, and with support from executive director of the COVID-19 Response Team Tom McCarthy, along with other staff at the department.

Wendelken said this was the same process that was used earlier this month to temporarily pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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“My apologies for not giving a message in advance,” Alexander-Scott told members in the meeting Tuesday. But she said the subcommittee’s role will continue to be “key” and “valued” as the state continues its vaccination rollout.

“The COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee has previously supported aligning with federal guidance on COVID-19 vaccine administration,” said Wendelken in the e-mail. “Their prior support for alignment with federal guidance, along with input from the team of clinicians and public health practitioners at RIDOH, were all taken into consideration.”

Alexander-Scott also acknowledged the feedback from the members of the subcommittee that asked the state communicate with them in advance of making public announcements.

“This is something we have done before and will do going forward. The COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee is a critical advisory body. They are partners who serve as ambassadors for our vaccination approach, and we want to make sure they are always informed and equipped to do so,” said Wendelken.

Tashima said it will be critical to put out correct information regarding the single-shot vaccine moving forward. In the announcement Monday night, the state health department said only six women under the age of 50 reportedly experienced adverse reactions involving a rare and severe type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. The problems were found up to two weeks, but less than a month, after vaccination.

“I think we’re up to 15 cases” of the rare blood clots reported in the United States, said Tashima. “They did find a handful of cases, so we shouldn’t continue to use ‘six cases.’ ”

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Rodriguez said it’s no longer a “one in a million” chance that people would develop the blood clots.

As a provider, Rodriguez said he would have to start saying that for women under the age of 50, the chances of blood clots are closer to one in every 80,000 Johnson & Johnson shots administered.

Of those cases, one man also reported the rare blood clots, said the members, adding that it wouldn’t be correct to only say that women had experienced these adverse effects.

Another member, Tri-County Community Action Agency Health Center Medical Director Dr. Will Giordano-Pérez, said the center’s vaccine clinic in North Providence had to place a sign outside to assure patients that they would receive the Moderna vaccine and not the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“How we communicate this out to the community is going to be very important,” said Wendy Chicoine, an associate vice president of clinical operations and clinical education at Providence Community Health Centers, and subcommittee member.

“We found that even though the registration link for the clinic specifies Moderna as the vaccine being given, many people were still concerned they would be given the J&J,” said Giordano-Pérez in an e-mail to the Globe.

The sign was taken down recently.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.