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New Johnson & Johnson vaccine a good option if you can get it, expert says

Approval over the weekend of a third vaccine against COVID-19 can only help, a University of Alabama at Birmingham medical expert said Monday, although state and local officials say it’s still not clear when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be available in Calhoun County.

“This vaccine is an excellent option if it is offered to you,” said Dr. Paul Goepfert, a professor of medicine at UAB and director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic, in a video press conference with reporters Monday.

Federal officials over the weekend gave emergency approval for use of a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine created by the drug company Johnson & Johnson, adding to an arsenal that includes vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer.

Goepfert said there could be 100 million doses of the vaccine distributed by June. In a press release Monday afternoon, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported that the state expects to get 40,000 doses of the new vaccine within a week. That shipment will be a “one-time allotment, and we do not know when the state will receive additional Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” the release stated.

So far, according to ADPH, more than 300,000 people in the state are fully immunized, meaning they’ve had both doses of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. The state so far has allowed shots only for people age 65 and up and people in certain vital or high-risk professions such as teaching or health care.

Calhoun County EMA director Myles Chamblee said Monday that the county has not yet received word on when the new vaccine will be available here.

“It’s a waiting game,” he said. He said local health workers quickly get shots into arms when the vaccine is available, only to be forced to sit and wait for new shipments to become available.

Goepfert said the new vaccine is a good development, and not just because it means more doses will be available. Relatively simple cold-storage requirements and the one-dose nature of the shot could make it easier to distribute, he said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only 66 percent effective in preventing people from getting symptomatic cases of the virus, Goepfert said, though it’s comparable to the other vaccines in the level of protection it provides against serious cases of COVID-19. Goepfert said he doesn’t see the reduced efficacy against catching the virus as a serious drawback.

Existing vaccines provide roughly the same protection against catching the virus after the first shot, the doctor said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine so far seems to have milder side effects than the other vaccines, he said, and studies suggest the protection offered by the vaccine grows in the weeks after the shot.

“Shot for shot, it works just as well,” he said.

Mask order expiring Friday

Rates of new infection and hospitalization due to COVID-19 have plummeted in recent weeks. The state’s public health order mandated masks is set to expire at the end of the week. Goepfert said it’s possible those numbers could stay down even after a mask order is lifted, though he said it’s not a risk worth taking.

“We have learned over the last year that when you ease up restrictions, the cases start going up again,” he said. He said the virus would remain a threat until vaccination is common in every country in the world.

Goepfort said the situation is complicated by the arrival of new variants of the disease, such as the ones first discovered in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“If you don’t want the rates to start skyrocketing again, you want to vaccinate as many people as quickly as you can,” he said.

Clinics for second doses next week

Calhoun County emergency officials are planning for a follow-up mass-vaccination event next week, after roughly 5,000 people got their first shot of a two-dose vaccine in February as part of a statewide vaccination push.

Chamblee said those people will return for their second dose next week. Because the first shot was in February in a non-leap year, scheduling was simple. People received appointments to return for their second shot at the same place they got their first dose, on the same day of the week and the same day of the month.

Chamblee said local officials have been approved to get the 5,000 needed doses, and have applied for approval to get more.

As of Monday morning, 286 people in Calhoun County have died from the virus, according to ADPH.

Statewide, 9,931are dead.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.