COVID-19 vaccine providers across Montana have temporarily stopped administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, responding to a joint recommendation issued early this week by the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration.

The news broke through emails and social media posts from various Montana counties Tuesday. A lengthy release from Missoula County’s COVID-19 Vaccination Coordination Team  attributed the pause to the “rare development of blood clots” in six recipients of the J&J vaccine nationwide. According to the statement, the pause is not expected to significantly impact Missoula’s vaccine efforts, since the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines make up the bulk of the doses currently being administered by the county. 

County residents who’ve already received the J&J vaccine are encouraged to inform their health care providers if they began experiencing abdominal or leg pain, shortness of breath or severe headaches. 

A spokesperson from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services said the state is requesting that all providers in the state pause their administration of the J&J vaccine until further notice. To date, about 20,000 Montanans and 6.8 million Americans have received the J&J vaccine.

All six of the recipients who developed blood clots were women between the age of 18 and 48, with the symptoms developing between 6 and 13 days after vaccination. One of them, a Virginia resident, died last month

The type of blood clots experienced by the vaccine recipients, which the advisory said “appear to be extremely rare,” require a specific type of treatment, and the CDC called for the pause in part to give local health care providers time to plan for managing any new adverse cases. The CDC also convened an advisory committee Wednesday to further examine the six reported cases and “assess their potential significance.”

“FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these cases,” the joint advisory read. “Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution.”

The review is expected to be completed within a matter of days. 

“We are committed to an expeditious review of the available information and to an aggressive outreach to clinicians so they know how to diagnose, treat and report [concerns],” CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said during a Tuesday press conference. 

In a statement, Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy encouraged residents to continue seeking COVID-19 vaccines, and the release stressed that first-dose appointments for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are still available throughout the week.

“The risk of getting COVID-19 remains significant, with the majority of our local cases occurring among 20-39-year-old residents,” Leahy said. “Missoula County providers have plenty of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine available while Johnson & Johnson is on pause for caution’s sake. The sooner a person becomes fully vaccinated, the sooner they become free of the risk of disease,  transmission, quarantine, lost work and limitations on activities such as travel.”

J&J vaccines amount to a small percentage of the state’s overall vaccine allocation for the week — 2.5% of the state’s overall count, or 600 doses. DPHHS noted that the J&J dose is stable for up to six months when refrigerated and won’t require special accommodation while the FDA and CDC conduct their review.

Since J&J vaccines don’t require special storage and are administered in one dose rather than two, they’ve been considered particularly useful for vaccinating rural and hard-to-reach populations. Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said those factors played into Gallatin County’s earlier decision to set up J&J vaccine clinics in West Yellowstone, a remote community outside of Yellowstone National Park, and on the Montana State University campus. He said the single-dose vaccination is an attractive option for college students, many of whom will be dispersing across the country when the spring semester ends. 

“We’re working to get those providers connected with other brands so they can keep giving shots,” Kelley said. 

As of Wednesday, April 14, nearly 609,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the state and 258,190 Montanans have been fully immunized. There were 194 new cases across the state Wednesday and 51 active hospitalizations. To date, COVID-19 has resulted in 1,526 fatalities across the state.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.