'All vaccines have risks... but not becoming vaccinated has risk as well'

Posted at 6:59 PM, Apr 13, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. -- It’s likely many Virginians who already received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine had a similar reaction to Katherine Schuster, when they woke up Tuesday to news U.S. officials were pausing its administration. The higher education employee sees the J&J shot she got two Fridays back as a path back to campus.

“Overall, I just felt very fortunate to get vaccinated,” she said.

Schuster noticed the news of rare examples of severe blood clots possibly caused by the J&J vaccine on social media first thing Tuesday.

“Alarming, a bit, and kind of get a pit in your stomach. But I read a few articles, and the more I read, the more I felt like it's being done more out of precaution,” she said.

A notion shared by federal and Virginia health officials, who said it is important to note only six cases of severe reaction to the J&J shot have been identified out of nearly seven million doses administered in the U.S.

“This is literally a less than a one-in-a-million chance of getting this complication,” Dr. Patrick Jackson, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UVA Health, said.

Dr. Jackson said the viral vector technology, which is used to deliver instructions on fighting COVID-19 to your immune system, is not new but has not been used on this wide of scale before.

Similar to the Astra Zenaca vaccine, which was paused in Europe for several days after similar blood clot concerns, Dr. Patrick said health professionals were bound to discover complications.

“This is certainly the first time we’ve ever given adenovirus vectors to tens of millions of people around the world, so we certainly would not have seen a signal of a potential risk earlier,” the infectious disease expert said. “All medications and all vaccines do have risks, and I think it’s important to be upfront with patients about those risks. But also, not becoming vaccinated has its risk as well. So, on balance, getting vaccinated is the thing that’s most likely to protect your health.”

Although exceedingly rare, health officials said the symptoms of the severe reaction to the J&J vaccine include quick onset headaches, pain in the legs, abdomen, or chest, and shortness of breath.

“If you experience any of those symptoms, get in touch with your doctor. I think one good thing about the publicity that this has generated is a lot of physicians are much more aware of this potential complication,” Dr. Jackson said.

So far, the only cases reported have been women, ages 18-49.

Dr. Patrick said women of reproductive age can be more susceptible to certain autoimmune and blot clotting conditions, which could explain the severe reaction in these cases.

Still, he said it was important to note that no official connection has been established between the vaccine and these cases.

Honing in on if the J&J vaccine caused these reactions and why will actually aid administration moving forward, Dr. Patrick said.

“If you identify a portion of the population that’s of particularly high risk from one vaccine and a portion of the population that’s a particularly low-risk from this vaccine, then you might be able to shunt use of different vaccines to different populations,” he said. “This is an example of the system working as it ought to do. This being such a vanishing rare potential risk would never have been seen in any reasonable sized clinical trial.”

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are based on mRNA technology, which is different than viral vector vaccines.

To date, there have not been reports of severe blood clotting with those vaccines.

Dr. Patrick said like the Astra Zeneca vaccine in Europe, he expected the J&J pause would only last a few days.