Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario employees pull the first does of the Covid vaccine to arrive at the hospital in December. Federal and state officials announced distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will end immediately.(Photo courtesy of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario).

UPDATE: This story has been updated at 10 a.m Tuesday with new information from Malheur County officials.

UPDATE: This story has been updated at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday with information regarding Saint Alphonsus Meddical Center.

ONTARIO – An ambitious effort to step up vaccinations in Malheur County was impaired Tuesday when federal and state authorities advised putting a hold on Johnson & Johnson vaccinations while a medical issue is investigated.

Malheur County already had the second-worst Covid vaccination rate in the state but the Malheur County Health Department planned to employ several measures to get more vaccine into the arms of local residents.

On Tuesday, Malheur County officials said they would suspending using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine "out of an abundance of caution and until further notice," according to Erika Harmon, health department public information officer.

State data from Friday, April 9, showed the county continues to lag behind most of the rest of the state in the rate of vaccinations.

Statewide, over 2.2 million people have received either one or both Covid vaccine doses.

In Malheur County, 5,539 residents were fully vaccinated as of Monday with another 1,665 receiving their first dose, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

State and county health authorities had planned to use that vaccine as one of two it would administer at a special clinic opening Friday, April 16, at the Malheur County Fairgrounds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday said six women who had received the Johnson vaccine developed “a rare and severe type of blood clot.” The agencies said they were immediately investigating to determine what role, if any, the vaccine played in the clotting.

“We are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” the agencies said in a joint statement. “This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events.”

The agencies said 6.8 million doses of the Johnson vaccine has been administered in the U.S. as of Monday.

Within hours, the Oregon Health Authority announced that “we’ve asked all of the state’s vaccine providers to immediately stop administering the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.”

Harmon said the action "should give us all even more confidence in the rigorous safety protocols being followed" with the relatively new vaccines.

"It’s important to keep in perspective that it’s six out of 6.8 million, and that the potentially damaging health effects and risk of death from COVID-19 are far greater," Harmon said. "Vaccines are safe and effective, and they are necessary to save lives."

Valley Family Health Care will stop administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “until further advice from the CDC,” said chief nursing officer Irene Winters.

Winters said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine evolved into a popular option for many locally.

“In the last three weeks we gave about 570 doses of Johnson & Johnson,” said Winters.

Winters said Valley Family Health plans to contact each person who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to notify them of the signs of a blood clot.

Trinity Health, the parent company for Saint Alphonsus, said in a statement Tuesday that "we are pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at our facilities out of an abundance of caution."

The company said it would continue to administer the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

"Vaccination remains our best hope for ending this pandemic," the statement said.

The health department has extended its vaccine clinic hours and beefed up public messaging in a drive to distribute more Covid vaccine locally.

Since December the local vaccine crusade gained momentum and the health department wants area residents to know if they want to be inoculated there are plenty of opportunities now.

Officials also want to target hard-to-reach residents, such as the elderly or those who are homebound, said Harmon.

“A person who is homebound can give us a call or they can reach out to an organization, such as the Malheur County on Aging & Community Services, and make a request,” said Harmon.

Harmon said once the request is verified the health department can go to those individuals.

“We have someone who is an approved vaccinator with an assistant and it will probably happen on the day we already offer the vaccine,” said Harmon.

Harmon said the health department also established separate initiatives to get the Covid vaccine into arms.

“We are coordinating with other providers in the area to offer information about vaccine options and sharing that information with people via press release, social media, our website and email,” said Harmon.

Harmon said the weekly indoor Covid vaccine clinic at Four Rivers Cultural Center “doesn’t work for everyone.”

“We have made on-site vaccination available at a variety of settings, such as Origins Faith Community and Lifeways Behavioral Health and we have offered workplace vaccine clinics to all of the major agriculture companies in the area such as Kraft Heinz, where we administered 89 doses,” said Harmon.

The health department, she said, is also trying to reach Hispanic residents.

“We work to make information available in Spanish, such as fliers and social media posts, and we are airing clinic information on two Spanish radio stations,” said Harmon.

Harmon said the hours of the weekly vaccine clinic at Four Rivers Cultural Center on Thursdays also expanded to give people more access to the vaccine. The clinic is now open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., said Harmon.

As of Monday, 11,668 first and second doses had been administered in Malheur County, including 1,085 Johnson & Johnson vaccines, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The health department, in coordination with the Oregon Health Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has scheduled a Covid vaccine clinic from Friday, April 16, to Friday, April 23, at the fairgrounds. The mobile vaccination unit planned to administer up to 2,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the first dose of Moderna vaccine over the eight days.

Harmon said 1,700 of the 2,000 doses planned for that even were going to be Johnson & Johnson.

"There is enough Moderna vaccine available to us to move forward with the event," she said.

The state has confirmed it will go ahead with the clinic, she said.

Earlier, she said that the fairgrounds clinic “allows us to make vaccine available over eight consecutive days, something that would extremely difficult for the county to do on its own in terms of staffing and availability of volunteers,” said Harmon.

The expanded vaccine clinic hours and the information campaign should help the county tackle the lingering issue of low overall vaccination numbers, especially for those over 65.

Harmon said the health department isn’t sure why there is a vaccination lag.

“It could be a number of reasons. Availability may be a big one but that is why there has been so much effort to make information available about vaccine options throughout the county,” said Harmon.

The health department is scheduled to offer its weekly vaccine clinic until the end of April. In May, the department will still offer second-dose vaccinations.

The weekly clinics will no longer be necessary, said Harmon, because there is plenty of vaccine available from private health care providers.

“There is enough to meet demand currently,” said Harmon.

Overall, Harmon said, the county’s vaccine effort is slowly beginning to pay off.

“It’s been all hands-on deck to make this happen and we have adapted and changed course when necessary and we’ve continued to learn,” said Harmon.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterprise.com

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