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Montana counties pausing use of J&J vaccine

by AMY BETH HANSON Associated Press
| April 13, 2021 12:00 PM

HELENA (AP) — The federally recommended pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination canceled clinics at two colleges in Billings on Tuesday while a clinic at the Missoula County Fairgrounds continued with the Moderna vaccine instead, officials said.

About 140 people had signed up for the clinics at Montana State University-Billings and Rocky Mountain College, said Pat Zellar with the Yellowstone County health department.

The single-shot vaccine was offered at the colleges because the semester ends at the end of the month and it would have allowed the students to be fully vaccinated before going home for the summer, Zellar said. Students are still able to get the first dose of a two-dose vaccine at county clinics.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the pause to allow time to investigate rare, but dangerous, reports of blood clots. The pause comes as some Montana counties are winding down their large vaccine clinics.

Cascade County is ending its first-dose clinics at the fairgrounds in Great Falls on Friday and is ending its second-dose clinics on April 30, the Great Falls Tribune reports.

City-County Health Officer Trisha Gardner said the last time they opened vaccine appointments there was less demand than the Cascade County Health Department anticipated.

Yellowstone County still has hundreds of openings for appointments at clinics scheduled later this week, including Saturday morning. Last week, the county had 1,300 appointments go unfilled.

"We asked for less vaccine this week," Zellar said.

Lewis and Clark County opened its large vaccine clinics to residents of surrounding counties starting last Friday and is closing its larger first-dose clinics on April 28. The county will hold its final second-dose clinic on May 19, the county health department said on its website.

Butte-Silver Bow County has opened its vaccine clinic scheduled for Wednesday to walk-ins and to out-of-county residents, The Montana Standard reported.

The rate of people actively seeking vaccines has decreased now that the older population has largely been vaccinated, Health Officer Karen Sullivan said.

Missoula County is also seeing less demand for vaccines, but is not at a level of vaccine uptake that would result in herd immunity, so the county is actively encouraging eligible residents to get vaccinated, officials said.

Partnership Health Center in Missoula said "out of an abundance of caution" it would offer Moderna vaccines to people who had signed up for a J&J vaccine clinic on Tuesday.

Montana's health department was expected to release a statement about the J&J vaccine pause Tuesday afternoon.

While counties have received far less of the J&J vaccine than the two-dose vaccines, not having the single-dose vaccine available could make it harder to inoculate people who are homebound, experiencing homelessness or are in other situations that can make it difficult to deliver two doses, Zellar said.

"It can be done but it is time consuming. You have to have a nurse who is trained to go to the home, all the safety precautions at the home," Zellar said. "You have to go back a second time and disturb their peace and they have to be willing to do two doses, whereas one shot is just one shot."

In Gallatin County, which has the state's largest current outbreak of COVID-19, there is still enough demand to hold large vaccine clinics, Health Officer Matt Kelly said. However, they are seeing appointment slots stay open for several days before being filled.

"We intend to keep holding clinics as long as we see adequate demand," Kelly said.

Montana has administered nearly 600,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines and just over 250,000 people are fully immunized, state health officials said.

The state has confirmed over 106,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 1,526 deaths. Montana has just over 1,000 active cases, nearly a third of which are in Gallatin County, and 51 people were hospitalized on Monday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.