When the news was just a headline, there seemed a collective gasp. Use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the only single-dose shot for COVID-19, which has been administered to nearly 7 million people in the U.S., was paused so federal health officials could review data involving six reported cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot. People wondered what this one-in-a-million risk meant for the health of those who’d already received the shot, for those scheduled to get it, for the vaccine-hesitant, and for our collective hope life was on track to resume again.
Hours later, many questions were answered: Anyone who received the J&J shot a month ago is a shallow risk of developing complications, and those who received the shot more recently can monitor for specific symptoms. In some states, people with J&J appointments were told they’d be given Moderna or Pfizer instead. Federal officials said the pause should have little impact on vaccine availability.
But uncertainty still looms, namely around the fate of the J&J shot as well as how this pause may impact those who weren’t sure they wanted the shot in the first place. The announcement seemed to shatter any illusion of smooth sailing ahead, even if experts say this is precisely how science works. For a pandemic-weary nation, the pause was an unwelcome setback.
“For those of us who pay attention to science and have for most of our lives, we can appreciate the fact that science is not linear. What we learn evolves,” said Lynn Bufka, senior director for practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association. “But because as a world, we have really been focused on vaccination as perhaps a ticket, if not the ticket, towards returning to a life that approaches more of what we’d like to be doing more comfortably and freely, now we are reconciling all the hopes we pinned on the vaccine with the reality of how science works.”
Coping with continued uncertainty and managing anxiety
Uncertainty has been a defining feature of COVID, but more recently, as vaccinations increased, we felt that we better understood the path forward than ever before. Cases remained stable, and while health experts cautioned we weren’t in the clear, it seemed we were closer than ever to ending a pandemic that cost over 560,000 American lives.
Health experts say the J&J pause is no reason to panic – forward momentum is likely to continue – but it adds to uncertainty at times when our tolerance for uncertainty feels exhausted. It disrupts the largely positive vaccine narrative, adding a new and unnerving hurdle.