Will the CDC and FDA’s call for a suspension of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine throw a wrench in Durham County health officials’ efforts to get more vaccine shots into the arms of Black and Brown residents?

For now, at least, the answer is no. 

On Monday, Rodney Jenkins, the county’s public health director, told county commissioners that the use of the J&J vaccine in underserved areas was central to the county’s strategy to achieve vaccine equity.

Jenkins said the health department had already administered close to 800 doses of the J&J vaccine, and another 300 more doses were earmarked for underserved areas.

The next day, federal health officials called for a “pause” of the single-dose vaccine after six women developed severe blood clots from the vaccine, with one dying and another critically ill.

Soon after, the Durham County public health department issued a statement indicating that residents who arrive at the clinic for a scheduled vaccination will be offered a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine instead of the J&J vaccine.

Those alternatives also will be available at community vaccination events, Alecia Smith, a spokeswoman for the health department, told the INDY in an email.  

“[I]n the event that J&J vaccine administration has not resumed in time for future events, we will follow state and federal guidance to provide these sites with Moderna or Pfizer vaccines instead, or will work with these locations to schedule events for a later date if desired,” Smith said. 

At Monday’s county commissioners’ meeting, Jenkins explained that the county health department planned to help facilitate community vaccination events using the J&J vaccine as a way to expand their reach into underserved communities, where vaccination rates are lagging.

“We look forward to that happening over the course of the next two to three weeks,” said Jenkins, adding community leaders have been partial to the J&J vaccine. “They have specifically asked for J&J. Also, church events. Those pastors have specifically asked for J&J. So we want to make sure we deliver.”

Those community events will still move forward, Smith, the public health spokeswoman, told the INDY.

“[I]f an event is planned during this J&J administration pause and leadership at these events specifically requests J&J, we will work together to either agree on a suitable alternative vaccine or to plan reconvene at a later time if desired.” 

The federal health officials’ announcement also comes at a time when city and county leaders’ quest to address vaccine equity is beginning to take root and blossom.

At Monday’s meeting, Wendy Jacobs, vice chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, talked about the “historic moment” and “festive atmosphere” that took place on Saturday when a diverse crowd of residents lined up in front of the downtown health department to receive their vaccine.

“It’s really, really important when we look at the numbers,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got to make sure Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians get vaccinated.”

Jenkins said that lately he is seeing more diversity among the residents who are showing up to be immunized.

“From my seat at the vaccination clinics, which I tend to be in every day…I’m seeing a lot more diversity. I’m seeing that they’re making it a family affair now, since April 7, and I love that,” Jenkins said. “I’m seeing it more often now. The diversity that’s coming into the health department. This past Saturday…there was a huge number of Latinx members coming in. I love that.

“I just feel that in a short period of time, the numbers are definitely going to reflect the diversity, and the distribution, that’s going on.”

Meanwhile, the health department has partnered with several Latinx advocacy groups including Siembra NC, La Semilla, El Centro Hispano, and the Ministerial Alliance to administer the vaccine to Brown residents.

Jenkins said the agency is also working with the county’s emergency medical services to create tools that promote equity in vaccine distribution.

Those tools include maps to identify “high-risk areas with low vaccination activity,” said Jenkins, adding that the health department will do “target placement” by dispatching mobile vaccination units to those neighborhoods.

He also noted that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will provide mobile clinics and that Durham Tech will soon open a vaccination site on its campus.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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