Sharpening resistance: States fret pause in J&J vaccine could drive up hesitancy

Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the pause over possible links to rare but severe blood clots should be lifted as soon as providers have the information they need on how to best treat the complications.

“We need to lift this pause as quickly as possible — and I’m talking about in a matter of hours and days,” Hutchinson said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “It is a concern to me in terms of we have resistance in the rural America already, and I don’t want this to give greater cause, or pause, to getting the vaccine.”

On a private White House call with governors on Tuesday, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that hesitancy for the J&J shot may lead to a demand for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, according to notes of the call obtained by POLITICO.

But the Biden administration remains adamant that sticking with the science will boost public confidence in the vaccine rollout — and many state health officials agree the move was the right call. That process includes possibly limiting use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine based on sex or age. A group of vaccine experts advising the Centers for Disease Control deadlocked Wednesday on how the government should proceed.

At Wednesday’s White House Covid-19 briefing, Biden chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said the decision should boost confidence because it shows that the federal government is tracking adverse effects in real-time and taking safety seriously. Some governors and state officials echoed the message in press conferences and statements on Wednesday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the pause had the threefold benefit of alerting health care providers on how to treat the blood clot, investigating whether there were additional cases and letting a CDC independent advisory committee review the clotting incidents.

The question is whether the nuanced messages over safety and protocols will be lost in a sea of memes and disinformation.

“What concerns me is how this moment and this data will be weaponized by those interested in sowing seeds of doubt about Covid-19 vaccines,” said Brian Castrucci, president of and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which has polled on vaccines and tested messaging. “The facts, the nuances, the sciences, the details are not going to be what we see on Facebook.”

The share of Americans willing to get the vaccine has grown since the fall. Yet, roughly 16 percent of Americans 18 and older say they are still hesitant to get a coronavirus shot, according to a recent Census Bureau survey. Ending the pandemic and returning the country closer to normal relies on a majority of Americans getting vaccinated.

To combat vaccine hesitancy, the administration pointed to efforts already underway, such as paid media campaigns and the Covid-19 Community Corps, a volunteer effort of health experts and community leaders charged with building trust in the vaccines.

“Leading with science, as Dr. Fauci talked about, and giving Americans the facts they need is central to building that vaccine confidence,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said.

But the events have thrown state distribution plans into disarray, as governors announced they’d comply with the pause and try to find other options.

“I think states really scrambled to cancel clinics if they were J&J only and to shift supplies around to keep as many clinics going as possible,” said Claire Hannan, the executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.