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Health Official Hoping J&J Situation Does Not Diminish Vaccine Confidence



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As Connecticut’s pandemic-related death count approached 8,000 on Thursday, April 15, Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert was closely monitoring developments related to the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination situation.

Two days earlier, the CDC and FDA recommended a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. Of the nearly seven million doses of that vaccine administered so far in the United States, six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot have been reported in people after receiving it.

All reports occurred among women between the ages of 18 and 48, and symptoms occurred six to 13 days after vaccination. As of April 13, the CDC said no cases have been reported among the more than 180 million people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

As news of the J&J “pause” spread, Culbert joined public health officials and many others across Connecticut and the nation echoing concerns that this latest development will make it even more difficult to establish confidence among individuals already fearful or concerned enough about possible COVID vaccine side effects that they have been holding off on getting any type of inoculation.

Locally, Culbert is looking for guidance going forward, as she was counting on utilizing the J&J vaccine for homebound individuals in Newtown she was hoping to serve with visiting nurses and others authorized to dispense vaccines.

“It was going to be a lot easier giving the J&J shot just once,” she said. “Now we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I only hope this issue does not cause people who may have not yet been vaccinated to lose confidence in the process.”

On April 15, NPR reported that many doctors believe this delay should be seen as a positive for vaccine safety: Officials are paying close attention to the reports of side effects and acting quickly to maintain public confidence in the vaccination effort. But experts who follow internet trends are bracing for the worst when it comes to how this news is understood and received by the public.

“This is what I would call the perfect storm for misinformation,” said Jennifer Granston at Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform. Millions of Americans were already skeptical of the vaccines before the Johnson & Johnson news, and a vast online network exists to feed that skepticism with bad information and conspiracy theories.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says its leadership does not know enough yet to say if the vaccine is related to or the cause of this health issue. For anyone who has received the J&J vaccine, the CDC recommends seeking medical care urgently if severe headache, backache, new neurologic symptoms, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling, tiny red spots on the skin (petechiae), or new or easy bruising develop.

Among the concerning news reports Culbert was monitoring this week, one uniquely positive point emerged: Newtown’s COVID-related death count was modified downward, meaning the total number of local residents lost to the virus was reduced from 67 to 66. At the same time, Culbert saw Newtown’s positive case count increase by 80, from 1,880 last week to 1,960 this week.

That prompted her to continue warning individuals, especially younger residents who may be on break from school this week, to minimize congregating in large numbers and/or with others who may not be vaccinated, or who may be infected but with no symptoms.

“I still have great concern about people bringing COVID back home after being with others they are not familiar with,” she said. “I’m still strongly advising the mask, distance, and disinfect protocols, as well as urging residents to keep their visiting of others confined to small, familiar groups. I know people have been waiting so long to see other friends and family members. I just hope if they are visiting older loved ones that those older folks are protected by the vaccine.”

Cases Continue Climbing

Regarding the continually expanding COVID case count, Culbert said she was not surprised, considering trends in the state and region.

On April 14, the total of laboratory-confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases reported among Connecticut residents was 327,298; 518 patients were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 at that time, and 7,984 COVID-19-associated deaths had been reported.

As of two days earlier, Connecticut continued to rank among the top three states in the nation that have administered the most vaccines per capita. The state achieved a milestone in its vaccination efforts as a majority of all adults — approximately 52% — have received at least their first dose, including:

*83% of those over the age of 65;

*71% of those between the ages of 55 and 64;

*54% of those between the ages of 45 and 54; and

*30% of those between the ages of 16 and 44.

All Connecticut residents over the age of 16 are currently eligible to receive the vaccines. Appointments must be made in advance at all clinics statewide. To learn how to make an appointment, visit ct.gov/covidvaccine and enter a ZIP code to find the nearest clinics.

Lamont is also reminding state residents that effective April 12, Connecticut residents can apply for funding under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Funeral Assistance program. This federally administered program will provide financial assistance to cover certain burial and funeral expenses for deaths related to COVID-19.

Those interested should contact FEMA’s call center at 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585). The call center is open on Mondays through Fridays, 9 am-9 pm.

Applicants should be prepared to provide the following documentation when applying:

*An official death certificate that attributes the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19 and shows that the death occurred in the United States, including the US territories and the District of Columbia;

*Funeral expense documents (receipts, funeral home contract, etc.) that include the applicant’s name, the deceased person’s name, the amount of the funeral expenses, and the dates the funeral expenses happened; and

*Proof of funds received from other sources specifically for use toward funeral costs. FEMA is not able to duplicate benefits received from burial or funeral insurance, financial assistance received from voluntary agencies, government agencies, or other sources.

Connecticut residents should request the official death certificate through the municipal vital records office in the town where the death occurred or the decedent’s town of residence. In Newtown, that point of contact is the town clerk.

For more information about this assistance and a list of frequently asked questions, visit fema.gov/disasters/coronavirus/economic/funeral-assistance.

Extending Outdoor Dining

Lamont applauded the Connecticut House of Representatives for unanimously voting on March 25 to approve legislation that codifies into state statutes the executive orders he issued during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that relax restrictions on outdoor dining at restaurants and enabling these businesses to provide expanded service to their customers outside.

The legislation permits restaurants to operate under these relaxed rules through March 31, 2022, and allows municipalities to expedite permanent changes to their zoning rules if they wish to expand the availability of outdoor dining and retail activity.

Lamont said that not only is it a good idea for these relaxed rules to continue for another year, but he thinks the legislature may also want to revisit this concept again in the near future to enable restaurants to continue offering expanded outdoor dining on a permanent basis.

“These relaxed rules could be the start of a new Connecticut tradition that increases activity in our towns,” Lamont said. “One positive outcome of this unfortunate pandemic has been that we’ve been thinking about new, creative ways to offer activities outdoors, including at restaurants.

“Expanded outdoor dining has created a vibrancy in many of our neighborhoods in ways that we haven’t seen before, all while supporting locally owned small businesses,” he said.”

The legislation is House Bill 6610. It was approved in the House by a vote of 141-0 and in the Senate by a vote of 34-0 on March 30. The governor signed the bill into law on March 31.

In addition to that bill, Governor Lamont has filed a separate bill to streamline the processes for municipalities to permit outdoor dining in their towns. That legislation, which is currently pending in the Planning & Development Committee, is House Bill 6448.

Newtown Cultural Arts Commission Chair Laura Lerman, on the left, and artist Karen Pinto discuss placement of some of the works during the installation of a Clay Date Potters exhibition at Newtown Municipal Center on April 1. While the municipal center has eased some of its visitor guidelines, all must still wear a facemask while inside the Primrose Street building, to continue preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Lerman also noted that First Selectman Dan Rosenthal is asking gallery visitors to social distance, and not gather in large groups while viewing the exhibitions.   —Bee Photo, Hicks
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