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Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is on hold. What does this mean for Detroit?

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Michigan is heeding the advice of federal agencies, and pausing its use of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

That throws a wrench in efforts to ramp up vaccination as the virus resurges. And that’s particularly true in Detroit, where vaccination coverage lags the rest of the state.

The city is adjusting on the fly, for now.

Making quick adjustments

Detroit’s Northwest Activities Center was set up as the city’s second mass vaccination site, an alternative to the TCF Center downtown. It’s been giving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Detroiters.

But that changed suddenly on Tuesday morning, when federal regulators advised states to discontinue the vaccine until they could investigate a possible connection to very rare blood clots.

But people still got vaccinated here. Detroit’s chief health officer, Denise Fair, says the city has enough supply for people who already had appointments there—or at the eight neighborhood vaccine clinics running throughout the city this week.

“If you were scheduled for J&J, and want to keep your same appointment, you will be given either Moderna or Pfizer,” Fair said in a video posted to the Detroit Health Department’s Facebook page.

It’s not clear how this latest development with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might sit with Detroiters. Initially, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan questioned the effectiveness of that vaccine. He later backtracked, and the city designated a mass vaccination site that would only administer that vaccine.

That’s where I found Hannah Cartier. She made her appointment a week ago at the Northwest Activities Center. About two hours before her appointment, she got a phone call alerting her that she would be getting another vaccine.

“As soon as we were greeted here at the entrance as well, we were given an information packet on switching from the Johnson & Johnson to the Moderna, any additional side effects, or any differences,” Cartier said.

Cartier said she doesn’t mind having to come back for a second shot. She works in the service industry in downtown Detroit, and says it’s just a big relief to get any shot at all. “Having this additional community center out here too, to do it instead of having the hassle of going to Ford Field, was a lifesaver as well,” she said. “It was much easier.”

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
People wait in line to get vaccinated at Detroit's Northwest Activities Center. The center made quick switches from Johnson & Johnson to other vaccines for this week, but its future as a mass vaccination site is unclear.

Seventeen-year-old Reel’l Barren got the Pfizer vaccine there too. “It was ok,” she reported. “I’m like, deathly afraid of needles, so you know I cried a little bit, but it was ok.”

But she said it’s better than getting COVID, which she’s already had. Reel’l’s dad James Barren said his daughter was a trooper.

“She says she’s afraid of needles, so she was looking forward to the Johnson & Johnson,” Barren said. “However, they’re having some issues with the blood-clotting issues. So I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with that.”

“A way to build trust”

University of Michigan epidemiologist Ryan Malosh said any slowdown in the vaccine supply chain isn’t good—especially in places like Michigan, where COVID is surging again.

It also raises potential vaccine trust issues, especially in segments of the population that were already hesitant.

But Malosh says even if the reported blood clots are incredibly rare, this pause is the right move—and shows the vaccine regulatory system is actually working.

“That’s really important, and a way to build trust, is that if there are serious side effects from any of these vaccines, that we can recognize them quickly and we can do the appropriate things,” Malosh said.

Malosh said another potential complication is that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was ideal for many people from marginalized communities, who may have more trouble accessing the health system. He said we owe it to them to make sure they’re getting the best possible protection.

“We have to be certain that these products are really safe and effective before we give them to the people who have already had the highest burden of disease during the whole pandemic,” Malosh said.

As a practical matter, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine made up a very small percentage of shots given out in Michigan and Detroit. And for now, the city appears to be backfilling its current appointments with alternative vaccines just fine.

What we don’t know at this point is whether this hiccup will jeopardize Detroit’s efforts to take more shots out into communities—and promote easier access to vaccines.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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