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Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 Vaccine Is Back In Use In The U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is back in use in the U.S. Last night, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration lifted a pause on the vaccine. They determined that the risks of catching COVID-19 outweigh the risks of some very rare but serious side effects. NPR's Pien Huang joins us to fill us in on the details. Pien, thanks for being with us.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: This is big news. And Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are resuming as early as today.

HUANG: That's right. Now that the pause is lifted, vaccinations can start up again. And the FDA has already updated the instructions for health care providers and information for patients, explaining that there is a potential risk for a rare side effect. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says she's pleased that the vaccinations can now continue.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The science supports this news, and I know that this is welcome news for many, as many have wanted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to fill an important need in vaccination efforts here and around the world.

HUANG: The J&J vaccine is just one shot. They can be stored for months at refrigerator temperatures, so it's much easier to keep and to administer.

SIMON: It's been 12 days, of course, since the hold began. Please remind us, Pien, why they put that hold on it.

HUANG: Well, it happened after six women who got the J&J vaccine got seriously ill. They developed a very rare condition called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, TTS for short. And it basically means people getting severe blood clots with low platelet counts. And even though there were only six cases at the time, the pause allowed them to look for more. Here's Dr. Melinda Wharton, director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division.

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MELINDA WHARTON: I think there was a very important objective achieved by the pause, which is allowing clinicians to be informed about the condition, raising public awareness and providing time to get a better assessment of risk.

HUANG: During this pause, they told doctors and people who had gotten that shot recently to look out for symptoms like a bad headache or abdominal pain about a week after getting the shot.

SIMON: Did they find more cases?

HUANG: Yeah, a few. The CDC confirmed that TTS has now been found in 15 people. All of them were women, mostly in their mid-30s to late 30s. And some of them have recovered, but three have died. And the key message to doctors is to ask someone who presents with these symptoms whether they've gotten the J&J vaccine and to not treat the condition with the common blood thinner called heparin, which could make the situation worse.

An advisory committee to the CDC met all day yesterday to hear about these cases. They talked a lot about how they had been found in younger women but ultimately decided not to put any restrictions on who should get the vaccine.

SIMON: But should women who are in that age group think twice before they get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

HUANG: Well, certainly the CDC wants people, and especially young women, to be aware of the risk. And there was some debate over whether there should be stronger warnings specifically for women under 50. Here's Dr. Jose Romero. He's health secretary for Arkansas and chair of the CDC's vaccine advisory committee.

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JOSE ROMERO: I acknowledge, as does everyone else, that these events are rare, but they are serious. It is our responsibility as clinicians to make sure that women understand this risk and, when possible, that they have an alternative at the same site that you're administering the vaccine.

HUANG: Of course, not all sites will have a choice. But in the end, the CDC said that the J&J vaccine was found to be safe and effective in most people and that adding this vaccine back to the mix in the U.S. would prevent around 1,400 deaths and 2,000 ICU admissions over the next six months.

SIMON: NPR health reporter Pien Huang, thanks so much for being with us.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.