While its ultimate duration remains unclear, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday defended the recommendation by federal regulators to pause all use of Johnson & Johnson vaccines and said he believes the decision will carry "minimal impact" on appointments in Massachusetts.
Baker, who for months has praised the J&J vaccine as a game-changer because of its single shot and simpler handling requirements, said the temporary halt could create "some logistical issues" but expressed confidence that the state's vaccination campaign will not be significantly impacted.
In his first public appearance since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended halting administration of J&J shots while regulators review six cases of a severe blood clot reported among the 6.8 million recipients, Baker said the single-dose vaccines represent "a small portion of our supply." He expects the larger streams of Pfizer and Moderna to continue to flow uninterrupted.
This week, he said, J&J shots accounted for about 3 percent of the state's vaccine allocation. State data show that about 89 percent of the more than 1.8 million Massachusetts residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19 received either the Moderna or Pfizer options.
"The best thing thing for us to do at this point in time is follow the federal guidance, wait and see what comes from their review with respect to those six cases and any decisions they believe we or others should be making going forward, do the best we can to make sure we reschedule appointments for people that were scheduled for J&J, and continue to pursue the program that we've got in place," Baker said. "We're basically on track with where we thought we were going to be back in December, despite some of the bumps along the way."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is convening a meeting of experts on Wednesday to review the cases and discuss next steps. None of the reported cases have been linked to Massachusetts.
Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said Tuesday that the pause should last "a matter of days," but the timeframe is not certain and depends on how the review goes.
"In the immediate future, we're expecting minimal disruptions to schedule new appointments," Baker said.
Any residents who had an appointment for a J&J vaccine already scheduled should reach out to their provider or the vaccination clinic for more information, Baker said.
Asked if switching J&J appointments to Moderna or Pfizer appointments could slow down the vaccination campaign, Baker replied that "you're talking really small numbers, relatively speaking."
"We got 11,600 doses of J&J for the week we're in now, and we got 380,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna," he said. "There's definitely some logistical issues there, but the truth of the matter is the bulk of our vaccination program from the beginning has been Pfizer and Moderna."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that depending on where the FDA review lands, the state may choose to convert its homebound vaccine program — which launched last month aiming to reach 25,000 residents with J&J shots — to the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer options.
"It makes it a little bit more logistically challenging, but we can certainly do that," she said. "Several of our mobile programs at this point use Moderna, so you know, it's a bump, and we're looking forward to getting the guidance from the FDA and the CDC and we'll pivot accordingly."
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine received clearance from federal regulators in late February, about two months after the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines started circulating. Many experts and elected officials including Baker have praised the J&J option as an important tool in the race to inoculate residents.
Shortly after the J&J vaccine got the green light, Baker said it would give Massachusetts "the ability to do certain kinds of things that would be hard to do now," noting that it does not require a follow-up dose weeks later and can be transported and stored more easily than Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Supply projections have varied since then as J&J ramped up production, then ran into manufacturing issues.
Baker said Thursday he does not believe the federal pause "changes that much" because of the comparably smaller outlook for J&J doses in the pipeline.
"I always thought of (J&J) more as a significant way to dramatically increase the delivery of the capacity we already have," he said, adding that Massachusetts has capacity to vaccinate two to three times as much as the supply it receives. "In my mind, I always thought of the J&J as a piece that would be a significant part of amping into the next level."
Baker stressed that vaccines "remain safe and effective," pointing to data showing that hospitalization and case rates for older populations — who are more prone to experience serious illness or death from COVID-19 — have dropped since they became eligible for the shots.
"The most important thing I can say about vaccinations generally is the impact it's had on some of the most vulnerable communities in Massachusetts and across the country and frankly around the world," he said. "It's pretty clear at this point: the vaccines work. If you look at the hospitalization rates and the case rates among those groups of people who've been vaccinated, they've evaporated, and in many cases involved some of the folks that we were most concerned about."
He praised the decision to pause J&J administration as appropriate while authorities review the situation, describing it as "an example of the system working as it should."
"I would take the J&J if it had been available, and I would still take it," Baker, who received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on April 6, said. "But it's important for the feds to do their homework on this because the last thing we want to do is make decisions based on anything less than the best available information."