MONTPELIER — State officials anticipate hearing news about how to proceed with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine soon.
At the twice weekly news conference on Vermont’s response to the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott said federal officials expect a decision regarding restrictions with the vaccine will be announced Friday.
“No firm commitment,” he said, having just gotten off a call with White House officials and other governors, “but that’s the speculation.”
Last week, Vermont followed recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that states should pause administration of the J&J vaccine after a rare form of blood clot affected six of the approximately 6.8 million recipients of the vaccine. All six cases were in women between the ages of 18 and 48; there was one death and all remained under investigation.
State Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the medical community was asked to submit any case that might be “remotely connected” to the vaccine. He suggested the possibility of having a small potion of the population being ineligible for the vaccine or warned not to take it.
As of the news conference, Levine said, “it’s hard to give any Vermonter the appropriate advice regarding the vaccine.”
“I can’t tell you how many people have expressed disappointment about the pause,” he said, recalling how people initially worried about how the efficacy rate of the J&J vaccine wasn’t as high as the other two vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. “I’ve been astonished at the number of people who are very disappointed.”
Scott said if the pause is lifted, the number of vaccination appointments in Vermont could be increased. He noted J&J continues to manufacture the vaccine on a limited basis.
Vaccinations are believed to be making a big difference.
“Given the higher case rates we’ve experienced over the winter, we estimate that 120 lives have been saved to date here in Vermont,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, “all because of these powerful vaccines and because Vermonters are willing to be vaccinated.”
Pieciak said even without the J&J vaccine, state officials believe they will hit goals in their plan for reopening the economy in different phases based on the number of people vaccinated. Levine anticipates that 12- to 15-year-olds might be able to get vaccinated sometime in May or June based on studies underway with the Pfizer vaccine.
On Monday, vaccination clinics were opened to anyone 16 and older. Jenney Samuelson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said more than 47,000 appointments were made for those between the ages of 16 and 29 — the number represents 40 percent of that population.
As of Tuesday morning, she reported 93,750 Vermonters received a first dose of a vaccine and 201,378 received their first and last.
“We have made remarkable progress here in Vermont,” she said. “Vermonters are known to stick together through difficult times and this is just another example of our extraordinary resilience and dedication to doing the right thing. Thank you to all.”
Pieciak said the state is seeing a steady decline in cases and the trend is expected to continue. Vermont recorded 797 new cases last week, which is 252 fewer than last week and 435 fewer than the week before where the state hit an all-time high.
The state had no deaths in the last several days, Levine said. Three were reported last week, compared to five during each of the two preceding weeks and seven during the last week of March.
Levine said the reporting system for COVID-19 data was going through maintenance Tuesday so the Vermont Dashboard wouldn’t be updated until the next day.