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J & J shot pause needed to allay fears

Boxes of Janssen vaccines sit at a warehouse

Boxes of Janssen vaccines sit at a warehouse in Budapest, Hungary on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Szilard Koszticsak

Nearly 121 million people across the country have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Of those, about 6.8 million individuals — about 5.65% —received the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shot.

Of those, six individuals nationwide — all women between the ages of 18 and 48 — ended up with blood clots. One woman died, and another has been hospitalized.

The complication is serious and merits concern, but, importantly, also is incredibly rare. Yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were right Tuesday to take the cautious step of pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It's an unfortunate delay but it's crucial that Americans trust their public health institutions.

Now, federal officials must develop new guidelines for any future use of the J&J shot, communicate next steps, and combat any additional hesitancy likely to emerge among some already-skittish Americans.

What is clear is that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently responsible for more than 90% of the shots given are safe and effective and so far, have caused no serious complications. The vast majority of individuals who've received the J&J shot have had no such complications either.

Indeed, in New York, more than 7.7 million individuals have received at least one shot. About 7% of those residents, or 535,350 individuals, received the J&J shot before the pause. As far as state officials know, no New Yorker had the blood clot complication, which has been accompanied by headaches or shortness of breath, usually within the first couple of weeks after getting the shot.

And don't forget this reality: Dozens of New Yorkers are still dying from COVID-19 each day. The only way out of this pandemic, and into a "normal" recovery is through the vaccines.

Tuesday's pause is a clear indication that federal officials are taking the time to understand what happened, how clots should be treated and managed, and whether any changes should be made to eligibility for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That's particularly necessary because these clots require alternative treatment and could worsen if handled with the typical course of heparin.

It is also important to note that the other two vaccines — those from Pfizer and Moderna — are very different from their J&J counterpart. Those drugs are labeled mRNA, or messenger RNA, vaccines, which give the body's cells a piece of a protein that eventually creates the antibodies necessary to protect us against COVID-19. They work completely differently from the J&J vaccine.

So far, the J&J difficulties aren't expected to significantly affect overall supply. State officials substituted J&J doses with Pfizer doses for existing appointments and are working with local pharmacies and others to reschedule any canceled appointments.

At a time of hope for rebound, recovery and reopening, the pause in J&J vaccine use is an unfortunate, hopefully temporary setback. But we must not make it more than that.