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County jails in Pa. delay COVID-19 vaccinations as Johnson & Johnson pause continues

About 350 of the 1,765 people currently at the jail were expected to be vaccinated this week.

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA

 Kiley Koscinski/90.5 WESA

(Pittsburgh) – Three southwestern Pennsylvania county jails have postponed vaccinating their populations as a result of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended temporarily halting use of the vaccine Tuesday after six cases of rare blood clots were reported.

Allegheny Health Network vaccinated 284 people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail Monday with the Johnson & Johnson shot. A second clinic scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed indefinitely while officials determine how to proceed, according to a county spokesperson.

About 350 of the 1,765 people currently at the jail were expected to be vaccinated this week. That accounts for just under 20% of the jail’s population. COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory for staff or incarcerated people.

According to a county spokesperson, those who received Johnson and Johnson shots Monday have been given information about symptoms to be aware of and will be monitored by medical staff for signs of reaction.

Washington County Jail officials learned about the recommendation to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine hours before their first clinic was scheduled to begin Tuesday. The jail has partnered with the Washington Health System to vaccinate its current population of 278. Only 95 people, about 34% of the population, communicated that they wanted vaccines ahead of the Johnson & Johnson clinic.

Warden Jeffrey Fewell said the clinic has been rescheduled for next Tuesday using the Pfizer vaccine instead. Jail staff will survey the population again this week to see if more people will accept the shot.

But a two dose vaccine can be complicated logistically for county jails where stays average just over a month. Some people could be released before getting their second dose. That makes the one-shot nature of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine more suitable for jail officials, according to Beaver County Jail Warden Bill Schouppe.

“While we have them here, it’s really ideal to be able to have an opportunity to offer it to them. Because this may be the only opportunity that they get or take to actually get the vaccine,” Schouppe said.

Schouppe expects the temporary pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to delay his ability to organize clinics for the Beaver County Jail’s population. While other jails are rescheduling clinics, the Beaver County Jail has not yet found a provider to administer shots to the 153 people at the facility.

None of the three jails have received their own shipments of COVID-19 vaccines. The Allegheny County Jail has been approved as a provider, but has not gotten word about future shipments, Lindsey Williams, chief deputy warden of health care services, said at a jail oversight board meeting April 1.

Jails and prisons are particularly risky for spreading COVID-19. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found incarcerated populations were more than five times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than members of the general population in the United States. The study also found that those incarcerated were three times more likely to die of the virus compared to their non-incarcerated peers.

“We’re just as bad as a nursing home,” Fewell said. “We have upwards [of] 60 to 70 inmates in one small area.”

Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said Tuesday the agency’s review of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would likely take “a matter of days.” The pause’s brevity was echoed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19, who said he understood the review to be “more like days to weeks than weeks to months,” and that officials, “Want to get this worked out as quickly as we possibly can.”

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