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Johnson & Johnson: Pause may be warranted, but panic over vaccines is not | COMMENTARY

In this March 6, 2021, file photo, boxes stand next vials of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution in east Denver, Colorado. The drug maker decided Tuesday to delay deliveries to Europe after the American regulator recommended a pause in the vaccine's use in the United States while very rare blood clot cases are examined. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
In this March 6, 2021, file photo, boxes stand next vials of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution in east Denver, Colorado. The drug maker decided Tuesday to delay deliveries to Europe after the American regulator recommended a pause in the vaccine's use in the United States while very rare blood clot cases are examined. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) (David Zalubowski/AP)

Last summer, a woman living in Bellingham, Massachusetts, was struck by lightning while sitting at her desk inside her home. The 23-year-old survived — and gained considerable media attention. After all, what were the odds of such a freak event? She is one of roughly 6.8 million Bay State residents. Indoor lighting strikes were uncommon before. They continue to be uncommon today. Presumably, even the most cautious Massachusetts residents have not stopped working at their home offices as a result. People naturally understand the nature of a lightning strike and the tiny risk involved. And they perhaps even trust others — experts, government officials or even neighbors — to tell them if circumstances had changed and they needed to take precautions.

The example is worth mentioning in the context of the recent announcement that vaccination sites in Maryland have stopped dispensing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week following federal government reports of six cases of a rare, but potentially life-threatening, blood disorder that were documented in a half dozen J&J vaccine recipients. One of the six women involved has reportedly died, but that’s among 6.8 million Americans who have received the single-dose vaccine. Are the two things linked, the vaccine and episodes of a blood clot known as CVST, or cerebral venous sinus thrombosis? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are not certain so they are now studying the evidence to find out what, if anything, might be done if the relationship is indeed causal.

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All of this is entirely appropriate, but some perspective must be maintained. The risk of dying from COVID-19 is fantastically higher than any vaccine ever prescribed for any illness since Edward Jenner prevented smallpox with cowpox. So far, more than 563,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID. The global death toll is approaching 3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. Most people understand this, but not all. There has long been an anti-vaccine movement in this country that claims the drugs are worse than the ailments they address. They are wrong — stupendously so, disastrously so, irresponsibly so — but that has not deterred them. And, unfortunately, the last occupant of the White House was known to be someone who stretched the truth about everything, including the coronavirus, from the threat it posed to the credibility of leading scientists.

Throw in the high-speed development of the COVID-19 vaccines and the once-in-a-lifetime nature of this pandemic along with this unfortunate politicization of public health and you have a dangerous brew. Just take a glance at most any social media platform. Individuals already fearful of the vaccines are using this precautionary procedure as an “I told you so” moment. And likely no group better reflects this vaccine hesitancy than the nation’s 41 million white evangelicals, nearly half of whom, according to a February Pew Research Center poll, have no intention of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. This is also a group that strongly supported Donald Trump, and some high-profile members, alas, see fighting the vaccine as a politically energizing opportunity.

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Still, can we be surprised to see such distrust of science when certain extremists posing as journalists on a certain cable television network continue to baselessly attack people like Dr. Anthony Fauci? The well-respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has predicted the Johnson & Johnson pause will likely last no more than days, echoing the words of acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and others. This past weekend, however, Mr. Trump mocked him as “full of crap” in a speech to rich GOP donors at Mar-a-Lago. The former president who so often downplayed the viral threat, one might be reminded, received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in January along with the first lady without disclosing that information to the general public.

It has been observed by others, people more deeply knowledgeable about public health than mere opinion writers, that Americans can’t be shamed or berated or lectured into taking appropriate action; they must be listened to and their concerns acknowledged as their exact motivations may vary. Better to be transparent and honest, offering the most accurate information available and acknowledging potential side effects. After that, one of the most powerful tools is to model appropriate behavior. When public figures like Gov. Larry Hogan happily take the vaccine, that’s a strong selling point. So are the long lines that still can be found around mass vaccination sites using Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Most people understand the risks and rewards but not all, perhaps not enough.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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