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Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause spurs worries in Tampa Bay

But some residents say the one-dose option still appeals to them.
The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is seen at a pop up vaccination site in the Staten Island borough of New York.
The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is seen at a pop up vaccination site in the Staten Island borough of New York. [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 29

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

Tammy Castillo is not big on needles. She tends to stay away from vaccines. She’s never even gotten a flu shot.

The Tampa resident put off getting a COVID-19 vaccine for weeks, but decided to get vaccinated earlier this week because she has her first business trip in more than a year scheduled for next month.

“I have to do my part, and get my life back,” said Castillo, 52, adding that she previously contracted the virus and knew getting the vaccine would make her feel safer.

Even though it means she’ll have to return for a second shot in a few weeks, Castillo opted to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

She said there was no way she was going to get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, not after the temporary pause in its distribution after reports of extremely rare but serious blood clots. The fact that the shot is only one dose instead of two, unlike Pfizer and Moderna, also makes Castillo nervous.

She’s not alone.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted April 18-21, before the pause was lifted, found that less than a quarter of American adults who have not yet gotten a coronavirus vaccine said they were willing to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Significantly fewer respondents said that vaccine was safe compared to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

U.S. health officials on Friday lifted a 10-day pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccines after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it found, out of 8 million people who had gotten the shot nationwide, 15 cases of women with an extremely rare blood clotting disorder. Advisers suggested the shots continue but with an additional warning about the rare risk.

On Tuesday morning, near-empty tents greeted Castillo and others coming by for vaccines at the Tampa Greyhound Track. The site again began offering 3,000 doses a day of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Sunday, but so far it’s only been able to give out a small fraction of those doses.

On Sunday, the site gave out 122 Johnson & Johnson shots as well as 131 first-dose Pfizer shots. On Monday, the site did 300 Johnson & Johnson shots and 352 first-dose Pfizer shots.

It’s hard to know how the waning interest can be attributed to the Johnson & Johnson pause, said Holly Hollingsworth, who helps lead the vaccine site at the Tampa Greyhound Track. He noted that similar numbers of first-dose Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson shots were given out. But he added that it felt like Florida “lost a lot of momentum with the pause.”

Yet the convenience of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine continues to appeal to some.

Raymond Junior Booker III, 41, stopped by the Tampa Greyhound Track on Tuesday specifically to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He said he’s a truck driver and doesn’t get many days off, so he didn’t want to come back for seconds.

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Booker said he’d waited to get a shot until Tuesday, first out of concerns about the vaccines in general and how they would affect him and then as he waited to see what would happen with the Johnson & Johnson pause. He said a friend who is a doctor has seen the effects of the virus firsthand and convinced him to get immunized.

“I want to keep others around me safe, not just myself,” Booker said.

Carlota Aepli, 56, said she chose the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because she grew up knowing and trusting that brand. Aepli said the number of reported issues seemed small compared to the number of people who had benefited.

“I’d rather this risk than to get COVID,” Aepli said.

Just over half as many people are being vaccinated now as there were at the peak two weeks ago, based on seven-day averages of counts reported by the state. Shortly after a lull on Easter weekend, numbers soared, and more than 120,000 Floridians became vaccinated every day. That rate has now fallen below 70,000.

While nearly three-quarters of people 55 and up have gotten vaccines, overall, only roughly half of all eligible Floridians have gotten shots to date.

The slowdown comes as more providers offer the vaccines — which are free — and as officials work to do more to reach out to groups who may be hesitant or hard to reach.

The slowdown in vaccinations is “discouraging,” said Michael Wiese, chief epidemiologist for the health department in Hillsborough County. He said the Johnson & Johnson pause and the “bad press that had for vaccinations in general” combined to slow people’s interest.

“I hope people are just waiting? I don’t know. I’m trying to be positive about it,” Wiese said. He said the case for coronavirus vaccines can be seen in the drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths among Floridians 65 and older, who are the most likely to now be immunized.

“We need to encourage anyone over 16 who hasn’t gotten the vaccine to get it,” Wiese said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.

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