White House Says It Will Meet Vaccine Goals Despite Pause In Johnson & Johnson Use : The NPR Politics Podcast The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration recommended pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six rare cases of blood clotting. The White House is emphasizing the condition is extremely uncommon, and it still plans to meet its goal of 200 million doses in President Biden's first 100 days in office.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and health reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

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White House Says It Will Meet Vaccine Goals Despite Pause In Johnson & Johnson Use

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White House Says It Will Meet Vaccine Goals Despite Pause In Johnson & Johnson Use

White House Says It Will Meet Vaccine Goals Despite Pause In Johnson & Johnson Use

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  • Transcript

NOAH: This is Noah (ph) in Hinesburg, Vt. I'm playing my first round of disc golf of the year. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I prefer frolf. It's 2:19...

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: ...Eastern on Tuesday, April 13.

NOAH: Wind conditions may have changed by the time you hear this. All right. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Is frolf really a thing?

DETROW: Frolf, frisbee golf - yeah.

KEITH: Frolf?

DETROW: Frolf.

KEITH: (Laughter) I'm dying.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: And we're going to set frolf or disc golf or whatever your preferred term is aside. We have Selena Simmons-Duffin from NPR's science desk here with us as well. Hello.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.

DETROW: So you're here because there's a big vaccine news today and not really the good kind. The Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. Selena, the CDC and FDA say they're doing this out of, quote, "an abundance of caution" because of six cases of women between the age of 18 and 48 developing rare blood clots. What is going on here?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the health officials say that what is happening in these six cases is that women are getting a severe type of blood clot at the same time as low levels of blood platelets. So, again, six cases - one woman died. One is in critical condition. And the reason why health officials are, you know, taking this somewhat drastic and unusual step of announcing a recommended pause on the administration of this vaccine while these cases are investigated is because physicians are supposed to treat this type of blood clot paired with the low blood platelets completely differently than they would normally treat a blood clot.

And so there's really, like, this bat signal going out. Hey, you know, first of all, if people come in with blood clots, make sure that you're asking them about their history of vaccination, which might not normally be part of, you know, taking a patient's history when they come in with a blood clot. And also, you know, understand that if this - there is a connection, you have to treat this in a completely different way than you would normally treat it. In some ways, it seems like this attention and this drastic step is really focused on physicians and on people who may have received this vaccine in the last couple of weeks to make sure that they understand that this is a very, very rare but possible side effect of this vaccine.

KEITH: You know, the thing is that we, as humans, are very bad at assessing risk or calculating risk. And so the risk of getting this blood clot right now looks to be about one in a million. The risk of getting struck by lightning is greater than that. But, you know, one feels more preventable than the other. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who came to the White House press briefing today to answer some questions, was asked, like, how should people who've gotten the J&J vaccine in the last couple of weeks - how should they react to this news?

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANTHONY FAUCI: Don't get an anxiety reaction because remember, it's less than one in a million. However, having said that, pay attention. Do you have symptoms? Headache - you have shortness of breath, chest discomfort? Do you have anything that resembles a neurological syndrome? And obviously, if you have something as serious as a seizure, I mean, that's pretty clear.

DETROW: Well, Tam, I mean, we've talked a lot about how the White House has worked so hard to separate the politics from the science and the health policy. They had made a point to not have Anthony Fauci, to not have the White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients at the press briefing room doing their own separate briefings. But today, after this news broke, the two of them did appear in the White House press room at Jen Psaki's briefing.

KEITH: But you know who wasn't in that briefing room? CDC and FDA - they had their own separate briefing earlier. And Zients and Fauci made it very clear that the White House was out of the loop on this, they weren't consulted and that that's a good thing. This administration - and this is certainly a contrast from the last administration that sort of badgered the scientific agencies.

This administration is making a very big point of saying that they are staying out of the science. They are letting the science agencies do the science, and they will do, you know - and the White House will do the logistics and the politics. And Zients, in this briefing, argued that this could actually be helpful with hesitancy, that this shouldn't be immediately seen as a negative.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Do you think the announcement of this pause will increase or decrease vaccine hesitancy?

JEFF ZIENTS: Look. Hesitancy amongst a group of people is a challenge, and we need to be addressing it. And we are, as I talked about, by going to meet people where they are, to follow all that we've learned about who people trust - doctor, local doctor, their nurse, their faith leader. And I think that, you know, there's tremendous track record, as Dr. Fauci has talked about, with tens of millions of doses of Pfizer and Moderna. The FDA, acting the way they did today, shows that they are indeed the gold standard, and I think that should reassure the American public that they will be very diligent and conservative in how they approach the vaccines.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I think it's significant. One thing I was thinking about this morning, waking up to this news, is the fact that it didn't initially go out to governors or health officials and then get leaked to the press and then come out that way, in which case it might have felt - I mean, you know, there was - there were complaints, certainly, from health officials that they didn't get more of a heads-up. And they, you know, woke up this morning to this news as well.

But, you know, if it had come out in that way rather than these agencies going directly to the public and say, there's something we want you to know - there's a rare side effect, and we're taking a pause out of an abundance of caution to investigate it. I mean, it certainly is an approach that is garnering some criticism, but I think that, you know, in some ways, it was extremely transparent. Everybody kind of found out about it at exactly the same time.

DETROW: Let's talk about that criticism for a moment, though. And, you know, I'm not saying this in a flippant way. I, you know, got a Johnson & Johnson shot. This - these - we're talking about cases affecting less than one in a million shots. A lot of people saying this really makes the shot look dangerous in a way that maybe the numbers don't justify. This could contribute to more people not wanting to get these shots, especially when you add it on top of the fact of the problems in that Baltimore-area plant from a few weeks ago, where 15 million doses had to effectively be thrown out because they had mixed it up.

I see both sides. On one hand, these problems are being caught and flagged and addressed. But on the other side, you know, especially as we look forward over the coming months where people are going to have to seek out people and convince them to take vaccines, how does this not hurt?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, boy. I mean, I guess we'll have to see what happens in terms of hesitancy. I think that is a really valid concern. I mean, there are a lot of ways you could imagine that on an individual level, people feel spooked, you know, and that affects their personal decision to get vaccinated or not. But I think that the point that I was hearing in the press briefing at the White House today was that this is a vaccine that's not used very much. I mean, in all, it's about 5% of what has been administered so far. This week, it's 5% of what was distributed to state and federal partners.

So even though there is the, like, spooked kind of component to this announcement, in terms of big-picture numbers, in terms of, you know, how the vaccine campaign is going and how - the role that it could play in bringing a halt to the pandemic, I think I kind of see health officials' points that it shouldn't have that big of an impact, and especially if the pause is brief and we come out of it with more information that might make everyone feel more confident about the rollout.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will talk more about all of this and how this could affect the rollout going forward.

We are back. We have talked a lot about how - and officials have talked about - a lot about how this is a race against variants that are picking up steam in places like Michigan, especially. Johnson & Johnson was the - remains the vaccine that is - only needs one shot, goes into effect in a faster timeline and is more flexible when it comes to how it can be stored, how it can be transported. Does this pause slow down the race to get as many people vaccinated as possible?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I don't think it's yet clear exactly if it's going to put a damper on things. The vaccine campaign in the U.S. is really depending on these mRNA vaccines and - made by Pfizer and Moderna, and there haven't been any similar safety concerns with those. So in large part, we can just kind of keep doing what we're doing. It shouldn't have too big of an impact.

KEITH: Then what Jeff Zients kept emphasizing, which tells you that they think it's important, is that they still think that they can average 3 million shots in arms every day and that they can easily meet this 200-million-shots-in-arms-by-the-first-100-days goal that President Biden set. But, you know, does the frustration of people who couldn't get the vaccine they thought they were going to get - does this, like, feed a feeling that it isn't working as well? I don't know.

And politically, you know, the former president put out a statement being like, why would they do this? Why wouldn't - you know, if I was president, we wouldn't have let them do this. You know, it's a very different approach that the Biden administration is taking, of saying, we're going to let science lead. But sometimes, that means that science leads to a place that doesn't fit with your narrative that it's full steam ahead.

DETROW: Selena, you have been trying to track down what happened to people who woke up this morning, probably really, really excited that they had a vaccine appointment, only to see, oh, no, there's a concern with the vaccine I'm getting. Like, what have you been able to see of what people who were supposed to get a Johnson & Johnson shot today ended up doing?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. So this has been kind of an obsession of mine - the sign-up system for vaccines in this country. And it is a total grab bag. And I think that the impact of this announcement on appointments has also been a grab bag. It's a reflection of the overall grab bag. But basically, in some places like New York State, where Johnson & Johnson vaccine was being used in some mass clinics, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo put out a statement early in the morning and said, don't worry, we're replacing this with one of the mRNA vaccines. Please still show up to your appointment. There - you know, we should - smooth sailing, basically, was the message. In other places - I saw at one Iowa University clinic that was scheduled with 500 students was just canceled. Students were told, you know, go ahead and try to book a Pfizer appointment if you can.

And so part of the problem is that even though CDC and other federal leaders are trying to say, we're going to try to make this as smooth as possible, we're hoping this is only going to be very brief and that we can restart again in days or weeks, the fact is that once the federal government distributes the vaccine, it goes to a lot of different kinds of private providers. And those private providers, like pharmacies and grocery stores and hospitals and all of these different places, also have individual providers who are making individual decisions about, what are we going to do with these people who are coming in? How can we scramble to kind of make this work or not work? Are we telling people they're on their own? Are we telling them, here's a different vaccine right now, today? And so it's a bit of a mess. And I think that...

DETROW: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...You know, how that ends up shaking out, how many people are really frustrated and/or really feel like they lost their chance at a shot today could play into that - what you were talking about earlier in terms of the public perception of how well this is going for the president.

DETROW: All right. That is a wrap on this today. Selena, thanks for joining us.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

DETROW: That's Selena Simmons-Duffin from NPR's science team.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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