As Berkshire County prepares for its first shipment of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines as soon as Thursday, local and state health officials stressed its overall effectiveness and urged people not to dwell on the comparison with the other vaccines.
The county’s first J&J doses will be allocated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish Center, the North Adams vaccine site, for clinics that could kick off as soon as this weekend. It was not clear when people would be able to sign up for those clinics.
Meanwhile, state legislators, including Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, pushed the Baker administration to allow teachers to get access to the new doses.
The J&J vaccine, which was cleared last weekend for emergency use in the U.S., had a 72 percent efficacy rate against moderate to severe COVID-19 cases in U.S. trials and prevented 100 percent of hospitalizations and deaths.
Dr. James Lederer, an infectious diseases specialist and chief medical officer for Berkshire Health Systems, acknowledged that the J&J efficacy rate is lower than that for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both around 94 to 95 percent, but encouraged residents not to fixate on that number.
“The Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines all do what they’re intended to do,” he said. “They’re all able to prevent hospitalization and death. They all work. Not only that, they’re all safe.”
Lederer also pointed out that the drug, which is far more effective than a typical flu vaccine, was tested in large-scale clinical trials in Brazil and South Africa and offered protection against variants that have been spreading throughout those regions.
“J&J was specifically tested in those areas,” Lederer said. “So, while it may not have prevented all infections, it allowed for enough of an immune response to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, even with the variants. And it’s just one dose. You get your shot and don’t think about it again.”
Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday also discouraged vaccine shopping.
“People don’t need to pick one from another,” he said. “If you have a chance to get a vaccine, you should take it — whatever it is.”
Though the first shipments are expected to be administered through the same channels as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, local rollout coordinators suggested that they could be used later for homebound vaccinations or to perform teacher clinics.
State legislators, including Hinds, have urged Baker to set aside 72,000 doses of the J&J vaccine for teachers. The move comes after Baker’s administration urged districts to return elementary students to full in-person learning by April.
“The calls by the MA Dept. of Ed to return to in-person learning across the state by April should be matched by efforts to ensure teachers and staff get the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine shot in March,” Hinds wrote on Twitter.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he would be using the powers of the federal government to direct all states to prioritize vaccinating teachers, and said the federal government would provide the doses directly through its pharmacy program.
He challenged states to administer at least one dose of the vaccine to all educators by the end of March as part of his administration’s efforts to reopen more schools across the nation.
Senate President Karen Spilka said Tuesday that the administration must provide cities and towns with the resources and support they need, including vaccines.
“Among those resources, we need a vaccine program for teachers and staff that is aggressive, and we need it this month,” she said in a statement from her office. “As more vaccine doses become available to the state, I am calling on the Governor to designate a percentage of those doses to be administered to teachers and staff in their communities.”
Just over two weeks have passed since people 65 and older became eligible for the vaccine, and teachers are scheduled to be a part of the next group, which also includes other “essential workers.”
On Feb. 24, Baker said it would take about a month, barring an increase in vaccine supply, to work through the groups of people currently eligible to receive vaccines. While competition for appointments has been fierce, Pfizer and Moderna are expecting to ramp up production this month, and the Biden administration announced Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson has teamed up with competitor Merck to produce more of its one-shot vaccines.
Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, said local coordinators have been told to expect a “large shipment,” although, after the first batch, the state expects to face a pause in J&J deliveries until later in March.
State House News Service contributed to this report.