By Travis Quezon
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Washington has expanded with the Federal Drug Administration approval of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine in February.
Health care providers are letting the community know that by taking the first vaccine you can get, you are helping to stop the virus from circulating. You’ll also avoid the risk of finding yourself without protection if infection rates surge.
As of March 9, over two million vaccine doses have been delivered in Washington state, exceeding the Department of Health (DOH)’s goal of 45,000 vaccinations a day.
Having a third vaccine adds more tools to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, according to International Community Health Services (ICHS) Medical Director Lakshmi Deepa Yerram, MD.
Of the 44,000 patients who joined the J&J vaccine trials, none of them were hospitalized from COVID-19.
“The J&J vaccine’s ability in preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death is comparable to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” Yerram said. “Please get the vaccine as soon as possible, and any brand that is available to you.”
All three vaccines currently available—by J&J, Pfizer, and Moderna—have 100% prevention of hospitalization and death.
There are also other differences. The J&J vaccine requires just one shot, while the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two. The storage and handling requirements of the J&J vaccine are also much easier for distribution by doctors’ offices and smaller settings because it can be stored in a regular refrigerator for up to three months. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have special handling requirements and must be kept frozen.
“The J&J vaccine provides the means to protect those folks who move around a lot or are pressed for time to be still able to get vaccinated against the virus,” Yerram said.
ICHS School Services Administrator Janni Sun has been partnering with community organizations to help administer COVID-19 vaccines at smaller popup events to reach populations who may be facing barriers to getting vaccinated. She described how many elders in the Chinatown-International District community face language and technology barriers or have difficulty registering for appointments online.
Sun pointed out that some people have said they prefer the one-dose J&J vaccine because it can save time and reduce possible side effects.
“It makes things so different for our communities, especially people who are working, who have barriers, who have logistics to deal with,” said Sun. “A one-dose vaccine can make a big difference.”
However, the addition of the J&J vaccine has also raised questions from some community members due to the numbers reported in the clinical trials based on efficacy and effectiveness.
In comparing the numbers, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines appear to offer better protection against COVID-19 when just looking at the data collected during U.S. clinical trials. The J&J vaccine reached a 72% efficacy rate in disease prevention compared to the roughly 95% efficacy rate of the other two.
Paul Nguyen, ICHS Shoreline Clinic pharmacist supervisor, has been administering COVID-19 vaccines since January and spoke to patients who refused the J&J vaccine this month.
“One of the things that has come up is patients’ hesitancy when it comes to efficacy rate compared to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines,” Nguyen said. For some vaccine patients, these numbers infer that the J&J vaccine is inferior. Many had questions for Nguyen. Some patients cancelled their appointments.
However, those numbers do not tell the whole story, Nguyen said. All the vaccines were tested differently and used different goal posts to determine effectiveness, making comparisons nearly impossible, he explained. The vaccines were also tested at different times in the pandemic. Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials happened in the summer and fall of 2020, before variants of COVID-19 emerged. The J&J vaccine was tested after the variants started to emerge.
“It’s kind of comparing apples to oranges,” Nguyen said. He reminds patients that all three vaccines are 100% effective in the way that matters most—preventing death, serious illness, and hospitalization.
Health experts are concerned over the spread of new variants of COVID-19, being more infectious and potentially leading to another surge in cases. Getting any of the three vaccines now helps to fight the pandemic.
“We are in a race against time together,” Yerram said. “The longer we allow the virus to circulate, the more opportunity it has to mutate, and that’s why it’s important to give immunity to as many people as possible, as early as possible. Please get the vaccine as soon as possible, and any brand that is available to you.”
To find out if you currently qualify to receive the vaccine, use the DOH PhaseFinder. It is available in multiple languages at doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19.
To learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and how to make an appointment, please visit ichs.com.
Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.