BRATTLEBORO — About 20 Vermont National Guard soldiers arrived here by helicopter Tuesday morning, and then left as they arrived an hour later — without distributing doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to area residents.
They left early because a rare but serious side effect experienced by a very small number of Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients led to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that states pause administration of the vaccine.
Vermont officials complied Tuesday out of what Gov. Phil Scott called “an abundance of caution.” He expects the pause to last “a matter of days, not weeks.”
Maj. Scott Detweiler, the public affairs officer for the Vermont National Guard, said the troops planned to return Wednesday, this time to Brattleboro Area Middle School, to distribute shots of the Pfizer vaccines. The Vermont National Guard has been assisting the Department of Health in distributing all three of the COVID-19 vaccines throughout the state, Detweiler said.
The side effect, a rare form of blood clot, has reportedly affected six of the 6.8 million recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The clots occurred in veins that drain blood from the brain and occurred together with low platelets. All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48; there was one death and all remained under investigation.
By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has infected 31.3 million of the United States’ 331 million residents and killed nearly 560,000, according to the CDC.
“The chances of becoming ill with this virus are far greater than the disadvantages” of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Tuesday.
Scott and Levine said no Vermonters have exhibited those symptoms to date.
A CDC committee will meet Wednesday to discuss the cases and the FDA has also launched an investigation into the cause of the clots and low platelet counts.
CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat said authorities have not seen similar clots after use of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and that people should continue to get vaccinated with those shots.
The agencies are recommending that people who were given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine who are experiencing severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after receiving the shot contact their health care provider.
Levine said the timeframe to be aware of those symptoms is between one to two weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The state’s decision to follow the CDC guidance affects about 4,000 vaccines appointments, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said Tuesday. That includes 2,000 appointments for Tuesday, another 2,000 for the rest of the week, and 1,800 more scheduled beyond next week.
The state will contact persons who had Johnson & Johnson vaccine appointments, Smith said.
Smith said the state will modify its long-term vaccine strategy and timeline if the situation warrants. For now, “It’s important for Vermonters to know this step was taken out of an abundance of caution,” he said.
Levine, asked whether the situation would erode confidence in vaccinations at a time when officials are encouraging people to get their shot, said “taking the time to get this right” could install greater confidence instead.
“This is science driven. Let’s get it right,” Scott said. “I would imagine by this weekend we’ll be back on track.”
The Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on an emergency basis. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which must be kept cold and administered in first and second doses, the Johnson & Johnson can be stored at higher temperatures and requires only one dose. Its recipients in Vermont include a number of teachers and school staff, and the governor and first lady Diana McTeague Scott.
Tuesday’s bi-weekly COVID news briefing was delayed by an hour so Scott and Levine could attend a White House conference call on the situation with other governors. Scott said he grew confident after hearing data presented by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky and from National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“After hearing some of CDC presentation as well as the conversation with the White House I have complete confidence in what we’re doing,” Scott said.
While the bulk of Tuesday’s briefing was centered on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Levine, frustrated by the number of young adults who converged on a Burlington beach this past weekend without masks, took a moment to reiterate that the pandemic is not over, no matter how badly people want it to be over.
“I want Vermonters to enjoy the outdoors. And I know how important it is for everyone’s mental health to socialize. So I really do get it, and I empathize,” Levine said. “But I was really disappointed to see such a blatant disregard for the rules. This behavior is not OK right now.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Smith said the state has made more than 6,000 appointments with Black, indigenous and person of color (BIPOC) persons and their households for vaccinations, and encouraged more people in that group of people to make appointments.
As of Tuesday, 90,100 Vermonters had received their first shots and 174,200 had their first and second shots, for a total of 264,300, Smith said.
Smith also said recent tests at the Northern State Correctional Facility showed no new inmate COVID cases. So far, 589 inmates have been vaccinated, and another 313 have declined, he said.
Brattleboro Reformer photo editor Kristopher Radder and The Associated Press contributed to this report.