Colleges pause J&J vaccine, face potential time crunch

With CDC and FDA reports of rare blood clots, institutions have to change their plans on the fly. Will that affect how their populations are vaccinated before the summer?
By: | April 13, 2021
Photo courtesy of Duke University

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended a pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines over reports of rare blood clots that led to the death of six women between the ages of 18-48.

The White House said there were enough doses of Pfizer and Moderna to cover potential shortfalls from the J&J vaccines, which should help the general population. But for colleges and universities relying on the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines to be administered to students on campus before they break for the summer, it sets up a potentially uncomfortable situation.

Institutions are largely counting on those vaccines as part of their reopening strategies for the fall, as well as keeping their populations safe over the next few weeks, with big events such as commencements just around the corner.

Many states, including Ohio heeded that guidance from the CDC and FDA, and advised healthcare providers to halt giving patients the J&J vaccine. Colleges and universities quickly pivoted their plans.

The University of Akron was one of the first to a pause on its on-campus clinics. It said that individuals who were scheduled to receive doses on Wednesday and Thursday would get additional information from the university on next steps. Ohio State University didn’t have any planned J&J vaccine appointments on Tuesday but its Wexner Medical Center put “an immediate hold on all Johnson & Johnson appointments.”

Kent State University, which also canceled it clinic appointments for J&J, was advising students to seek other appointments for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Cleveland State University has been using its Wolstein Center as a mass vaccination site, where healthcare workers are dispensing the Pfizer vaccines. They were supposed to be making a switch to the J&J vaccine in two weeks. Those plans are now uncertain.

More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been dispensed with rare occurrences of the blood clot conditions. The conditions presented between 6 and 13 days after vaccination. Both the CDC and FDA are conducting investigations to “assess their potential significance.”

“Right now, these adverse events appear to be extremely rare. COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority for the federal government, and we take all reports of health problems following COVID-19 vaccination very seriously,” a joint statement from the agencies said. “People who have received the J&J vaccine who develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider.”

Those recommendations were relayed to their communities by several institutions on Tuesday, including Akron. The timing of the news presents challenges for universities, not only in getting students vaccinated (two doses requires far more time and the potential for students to not be on campus for the second shot) but in assuring them of their safety. At least a dozen institutions have mandated that students be vaccinated before a return in the fall.

Two of those, Cornell and Ithaca universities in upstate New York, were supposed to be part of a College Student Vaccination Day on Thursday. But that has been tabled out of an abundance of precaution after the state of New York also advised against administering the vaccine.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged those who were booked for the J&J vaccine at state-run mass vaccination sites to keep their appointments today because they would be “offered the Pfizer vaccine instead.”

Oakland University in Michigan, which had both doses available, did just that, keeping its appointments going but just switching patients over to Pfizer.