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Milwaukee, Wisconsin Health Officials Respond To The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause

Cleaning supplies
Stephen Zenner
Boxes of the Covid-19 Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine are ready to be distributed as part of a collaborative effort from the West Virginia National Guard, FamilyCare Health Centers and Toyota to vaccinate Toyota employees on March 26, 2021 on the grounds of the Toyota plant in Buffalo, West Virginia.

Local and state health agencies have joined a national pause in use of the COVID-19 vaccine made by the firm Johnson & Johnson. But officials in Milwaukee and Madison are still urging people to get shots of COVID vaccine made by two other companies, Pfizer and Moderna.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's reviewing use of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine, after reports that six women who were given the vaccine developed blood clots six to 13 days later. That's out of nearly seven million doses used nationwide. NPR reports the women were between the ages of 18 and 48. The CDC says one woman died. One patient is in critical condition. State officials say none is from Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said her department has given a relatively small number of shots of the vaccine, including reserving some for teachers.

"I'm thinking we did maybe around 200 teachers with J&J. We have used it at a handful of mobile sites. We used it with the [Milwaukee] Brewers. We've used it at our shelters. So, it's been a variety of different locations," Johnson told the news media Tuesday.

Johnson said overall, the Milwaukee Health Department has administered nearly 1,900 doses of J&J , out of 82,000 doses overall.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.
Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

Milwaukee County officials said the county has given about 16,000 shots of Johnson & Johnson, including at the Kosciuszko Park Community Center and the House of Correction — again, a small fraction, compared to county use of the Moderna and Pfizer brands.

Dr. Ben Weston of the county's Office of Emergency Management and the Medical College of Wisconsin said the J& J vaccine is very good at preventing people who get COVID-19 from needing to go to the hospital. He said the risk of getting severely ill from the vaccine is very low.

"Now, that said, if you are a young female who has received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and you're a week or two out from the vaccine, and you're experiencing severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath, contact your health care provider," Weston said.

>>Johnson & Johnson Vaccine And Blood Clots: What You Need To Know

Weston said federal experts will now try to determine if the vaccine caused the blood clots, or whether the six cases were a coincidence.

Meanwhile, many political leaders are trying to boost, or at least maintain confidence, in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said he still has faith in the shots.

"We know that in order to crush COVID, we have to get this vaccine in order to get to a place of normalcy. That's why we continue to do these COVID briefings is to let people know what the facts are out there," Crowley said.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk speaks to the news media Tuesday.
Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach
Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk speaks to the news media Tuesday.

State health officials say about 160,000 doses of the J& J vaccine have been administered across Wisconsin — roughly 4% of the vaccine total. Much of that supply went to local health departments.

Deputy State Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk acknowledged concern about the blood clots. But she said there's a bigger risk in not getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

"You know, we've already ascertained that the risk of this rare event is about one in a million for this vaccine. The risk of getting COVID in the United States is one in 10. ... The risk of dying from COVID is one in 600 in the United States," Willems Van Dijk said.

Willems Van Dijk said the at least temporary loss of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not expected to have a major impact on vaccine supply in Wisconsin. She said the state was already expecting much less J&J the rest of this month, due to a production problem at a plant in Maryland.

"Next week, we only thought we were only going to get 3,000 doses of J&J, while we maintain 140,000-150,000 first doses of Pfizer and Moderna," Willems Van Dijk said.

Willems Van Dijk said while federal officials review the status of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, local clinics are being asked to refrigerate their unused supply, until the safety issue is resolved.

The uncertainty about the vaccine comes as state officials continue to worry about an increase in COVID-19 cases. The Department of Health Services reported 922 new confirmed cases Tuesday. That's above the seven-day average of 794 per day. The department reported ten more deaths in Wisconsin, for a total approaching 6,700.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach
Dr. Ryan Westergaard of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard is chief medical officer for the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases. He said key problems continue to be more contagious coronavirus variants, and more kids becoming ill — a big change from last fall

"During the large surge in November-December, the age cohort with the lowest number of cases was those under 18 years of age. When you look at this week and last week, people under 18 actually have the highest cases. So it has flipped," Westergaard said.

But Westergaard suspected changes in the behavior of adults — less mask -wearing and social distancing — are also part of the story.

A story that became more complicated this week, with the pause in use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

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