By Bo Tefu, California Black Media

Some Black ministers in Southern California say authorities failed to keep them up to speed with developments before halting administration of the J&J vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six women between the ages of 18 and 48 developed blood clots, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, during clinical trials.

One of the women died.

  “This is alarming,” said the Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California. “People were already leery. But we put our name out there to help get people vaccinated. Many of us thought the one-shot J&J vaccine was the best for people in our community.”

Tulloss said the week before the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) decision to pause the vaccine, the Baptist Minsters Conference hosted a site for the governor’s emergency team and FEMA. Over 2300 people were vaccinated through the program.

“No one reached out to us. I had to hear about his on the news,” said Tulloss. “We were left in the dark, blind — not able to share with those concerned what was the next step and how this is happening. It will cause a greater harm for African Americans and our community as a whole. People were not trusting these vaccines. Supervisor Holly Mitchell was the only one who convened a conversation with the ministers to let us know what was going on. She’s the only one we heard from.”

Many Black Public health experts agree that there needs to be more transparency.

“We’ve got to be fully transparent because when something goes wrong, it looks like we have targeted this particular community, whether it’s Black, Latinx, or the Asian community. When it comes out that something’s wrong with this vaccine it’s going to look malicious, even if it’s not,” said Dr. Kim Rhoads Director Office of Community Engagement at the University of California, San Francisco.

The same day the CDC announced the pause, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), announced that it is adhering to the CDC’s advice.

“Today, the CDC and FDA have recommended a temporary pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine out of an abundance of caution. Of over 6.8 million doses administered nationally, there have been six reported cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot with symptoms occurring 6 to 13 days after vaccination,” said Dr. Erica Pan, a leading California state epidemiologist.

“California is following the FDA and CDC’s recommendation and has directed health care providers to pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until we receive further direction from health and safety experts,” Pan continued.

 On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said he expects the federal government to make an announcement about whether it will proceed with or permanently halt the J&J vaccine by the end of this week.

The J&J vaccine first grabbed national attention when it was hailed as the “one-and-done” shot, the country’s only one-dose vaccine, allocated to some segments of California’s underserved communities, such as the homeless population.

Faith-based leaders working closely with the state to administer vaccines in these communities said the pause is a setback for vaccine equity.  

But last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom sounded confident.

He told Californians that J&J vaccines accounted for only 4% of California’s total supply that week. The governor is among the millions of people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“It will not materially impact our ability to fulfill our expectations and commitment to provide enough vaccines to fully vaccinate all those that seek to get vaccinated, so that we can begin to fully open our economy by June 15,” said Gov. Newsom, referring to the pause.   

But Black health experts are stressing that, now more than ever, pharmaceutical companies and research institutions need to be transparent about the vaccine science. They say that is critical to counteracting vaccine hesitancy. 

  Rhoads, who is also the founder of Umoja Health, a Bay Area community healthcare organization, helped pioneer the pop-up site model currently used by the state as a template for setting up mass vaccine sites in an effort to promote equity in vaccine distribution.

“I want to emphasize where we as academic institutions keep going wrong is a lack of transparency, we want to paint a rosy picture, we want to convince people to get vaccinated instead of giving people information to make their own decisions,” she said.  

The medical and public health expert emphasized that the state needs to build a relationship with the African American community to establish trust that can grow at a good pace.  

“We don’t build relationships, we think of outreach – which is not a relationship,” said Rhoads.  

“If you don’t have a relationship with the community, then you’re not going to have trust,” she said.  

Healthcare policy and advocacy groups hosted virtual discussion forums to address the rising doubts in the Black community nationwide since the FDA and CDC announced the J&J vaccine pause. The California Black Health Network was among the various organizations to lead discussions on vaccine hesitancy and health equity with medical experts including the Surgeon General of California Dr. Nadine Burke Harris.  

Burke Harris stressed the importance of vaccines for public safety and encouraged people who received the J&J vaccine to consult healthcare providers to mediate their concerns.  

“The reasons why the CDC and the FDA decided to put a pause on the use of the vaccine and issue this health alert is also to help healthcare providers know what to look out for,” she said.  

Harris said that the state is dedicated to being more transparent about vaccine efforts to keep the public safe.  

“The key piece is that we want to maintain public confidence in our process, and in the safety and efficacy of our vaccines, and in our ability to be transparent,” said Harris.  

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is a novel virus which means that the human body does not have the natural ability to produce antibodies that can fight the virus. Scientific research also shows that people who have tested positive for COVID-19 still need to get vaccinated. Recent studies have shown that pregnant women who get vaccinated are the first to birth babies with immunity to COVID-19.  

The advocacy work of African American faith-based leaders has led to a statewide partnership between the state and 200 places of worship to boost vaccine equity.  

So far, the state has provided close to 40,000 vaccines at the pop-up sites hosted by faith-based organizations. The state plans to stand up the pop-up sites with at least 25,000 vaccines to immunize people in underserved communities. 

State officials confirmed that the California Governor’s Vaccine Task Force is working closely with the CDC and FDA to discuss plans to reopen the state by June this year.  

“This pandemic disease remains deadly. The way we defeat this disease is to get vaccinated. The sooner we get vaccinated, the sooner we open up our businesses,” said Gov. Newsom. 

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.