Virginia will temporarily stop administering Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal agencies review a rare potential side effect

Vials of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine. (NBC12)

Virginia will temporarily stop administering doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal health agencies review six reported cases — out of millions of doses administered — of blood clots developed in patients within two weeks of receiving the shot.

In a Tuesday statement, state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said the pause would continue until federal agencies completed their investigation.

“If you have an upcoming appointment for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you will be contacted to reschedule that appointment,” he said. “This pause is reassuring in that it demonstrates that the systems that are in place to monitor vaccine safety are working.”

The state will continue administering both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which have also received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Side effects from any vaccine, including the Johnson & Johnson shot, are “extremely rare,” Avula said. In a joint statement on Tuesday, the FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also described the blood clots as rare but severe.

All six cases occurred among women between the ages of 18 and 48 and the blood clots were coupled with low levels of blood platelets. According to The New York Times, one woman died and another woman in Nebraska has been hospitalized in critical condition.

The state’s Department of Health could not immediately say whether any of the cases occurred in Virginia.

More than 6.8 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered nationwide, according to the federal agencies.  

Virginia’s decision comes hours after the FDA and CDC recommended an immediate nationwide pause in Johnson & Johnson administration as they investigate the cases. That recommendation was made “out of an abundance of caution” until federal regulators can review the reports and assess their potential significance.

“This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot,” the statement reads.

VDH could not immediately say how many doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered across Virginia. It’s also still unclear how the pause might affect the state’s goal of opening vaccination appointments to all adults by April 18. 

In a telebriefing on Friday, Avula said it was large shipments of Johnson & Johnson vaccine that allowed the state to “confidently move” into Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout. Last week, Virginia received around 124,000 of doses through its state allocation and another roughly 150,000 doses through a retail pharmacy partnership run by the federal government.

But supplies of Johnson & Johnson vaccine plummeted this week after millions of doses were contaminated and later discarded at a production plant in Baltimore. Avula said the state received 14,800 doses this week — about a tenth of the supply it was initially expecting.

Avula has also said the state hopes that every adult who wants a vaccine will have received at least a first dose by mid- to late-May.

Patients who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and go on to develop severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider, according to the FDA. Health care providers should report all adverse reactions to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.