Minnesota tells providers to suspend using J&J vaccine as feds investigation rare blood clots

Minnesota health officials are scrambling to reschedule appointments for people who were supposed to get a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week after telling health providers to stop using their J&J doses for now.

Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration revealed they were investigating extremely rare but potentially dangerous blood clots. Minnesota was among many states that followed by asking providers to pause their use of J&J's vaccine.

The pause is likely to last days, not weeks or months, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters while touring the new FEMA mass vaccination site at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

"This is an unfortunate development. But I’ll reinforce, this is the way the process is supposed to work," Malcolm said. "When there are safety signals -- even when they’re very rare -- they should be checked out." 

The setback comes as Minnesota races a third wave of infections. Hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past month to 676 beds in use Monday, up from 260 on March 12.

At the same time, vaccinations have also soared because of increased supply from the federal government -- including tens of thousands of Johnson & Johnson doses.

In a joint statement Tuesday, the CDC and FDA said they were investigating six known cases out of the 6.8 million people who have received a J&J vaccine. There are no known cases in Minnesota, where 184,000 people have gotten the J&J shot, health officials said.

Federal officials said almost all J&J vaccines administered in the U.S. have led to no or mild side effects.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which together account for more than 93 percent of the vaccines administered in Minnesota, are not affected by the pause.

"There have been no red flags, signals from those," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. infectious disease director, told reporters at the White House. "So you're talking about tens and tens and tens of millions of people have received vaccine with no adverse effect."

Nevertheless, Malcolm acknowledged that the setback could lead to more vaccine hesitancy and encouraged people to find trustworthy sources of information.

Minnesota health officials said anyone who develops severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within 3 weeks of receiving a J&J vaccine should contact their doctor.

Gov. Tim Walz and Malcolm spoke Tuesday at the new federally-supported mass vaccination site at the State Fairgrounds. The site will administer Pfizer vaccines to start and was not affected by the J&J announcement, a health department spokesman said.

The FEMA-run site will administer 3,000 doses a day and could reach more than 100,000 doses in the coming weeks. Appointments are targeted toward hard-hit communities by making only certain zip codes eligible.

More than 2.1 million Minnesotans have gotten at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, or 48 percent of the state's adult population.

Walz will extend powers, but no more restrictions planned

Walz said he would move to extend his peacetime emergency powers for another 30 days on Tuesday. But he’s not planning to use those powers to impose new economic restrictions despite surging cases, the governor said.

Instead, Walz forecasted a stronger testing program in schools and youth sports because much of the recent spread has been among young people.

"Ramping up a more aggressive testing program in our schools and in our youth sports is probably the next step over mitigation efforts," Walz told reporters. 

Malcolm said state officials will consider vaccinating in high schools as supply allows, especially in communities hardest hit by the virus.