April 16, 2021
By Naomi Lopez
The COVID-19 threat is worsening in many places—and tragically, government overcaution is pouring fuel on the fire.
Thirty-eight states now face an increase of COVID-19 hospitalizations over last week, with some areas facing dramatic surges. In Michigan, for example, there were 10,000 new cases reported on Tuesday alone, with an average of 46 deaths per day. Now, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advisory panel has issued a “pause” on the administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine over an “abundance of caution.” The reason for the caution? Six cases of potentially dangerous blood clotting—out of nearly 8 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses administered.
While there has been no causal determination that the vaccine is responsible for this rare but potentially fatal type of blood clotting, federal officials have nonetheless “paused” the “one and done” vaccine. While not required to do so, all 50 states are now following the federal lead.
Potential adverse events should be taken seriously, and the loss of one patient and suffering of the others should not be minimized in any way. But the reality of medicine is that every treatment carries risk, as well as the risks of non-treatment.
Acetaminophen, which is often called by its brand name Tylenol, is available over-the-counter without a prescription—and it’s responsible for tens of thousands of emergency room visits, about 2,600 hospitalizations, and 500 deaths every year in the U.S. And while every effort is rightfully being made to understand if there is a link between these blood clot cases and the vaccine, the impacts of this pause may ultimately cause unnecessary confusion and harm. (I talked about these impacts on KJZZ’s “The Show” earlier this week—you can listen to that here.)
In particular, there is already vaccine hesitancy occurring, and halting the vaccine may further contribute to it. An Economist/YouGov poll released yesterday that the percentage of Americans who consider the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “safe” dropped by 15 points following the pause announcement. Across the country, many vaccine appointments, clinics, and events have been cancelled after the announcement. And that particularly affects harder-to-reach populations, such as homeless and rural populations: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being more prevalently used for these communities due to the ease of logistics of this vaccine, which is a single dose and does not require ultra-cold refrigeration.
The ongoing evaluation of the safety of treatments is important, and certainly, healthcare providers and patients should be made aware of the risks of the vaccine. But the fact that there is risk involved in a treatment is not a reason to deny it when there is a very possibility that the benefits outweigh the risks. And that definitely fits our situation with COVID: As COVID-19 cases rise in many areas of the country and the concern over escape variants grows, ten million doses of the Johnson & Johnson “one and done” vaccine are now sitting on the shelves.
As the CDC advisory panel takes more time to evaluate the pause decision and next steps, we may be undermining our nation’s dual goals of public health and economic recovery. In the face of the potential risks with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there is something that we do know: This pause means more Americans are going unvaccinated, and government’s risk aversion could be powering our next COVID wave.
Naomi Lopez is the Director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute and a contributor to Goldwater’s new blueprint, Putting Patients First: Unleashing Innovation in American Healthcare.