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Rural Colorado county health official worries about vaccine hesitancy after J&J pause

"My concern is that folks that wanted to get the vaccine in a one-dose option now may delay getting that vaccine or may not get it all together ."

DENVER — Johnson & Johnson vaccines are on hold for now after the CDC and FDA recommended a pause on Tuesday to look into extremely rare blood cots. The announcement is forcing counties to cancel Johnson & Johnson clinics.

"This is another curveball for all public health," said Dwayne Smith, Public Health Director in Elbert County.

In places that make up a fraction of the state's population, health officials are used to getting small batches of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Smith said there are only three enrolled vaccine providers in Elbert County: the local health department, Peak Vista Community Health Center, and a pharmacy.

Elbert County does not have a hospital.

"We have been behind the 8 ball from the inception of the vaccine rollout and not having a one-dose option is another challenge that rural communities have to overcome," he said. 

Smith said Elizabeth Fire and Rescue will start vaccine clinics next week. He explained they had intended to offer patients a choice between Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. That choice is now gone, at least for now.

"In a larger sense, folks that were either holding out for a one-dose option or were reluctant to get a two-dose series of vaccines, it presents another obstacle for them," Smith said. "Rural communities by and large are already more vaccine-hesitant than suburban communities and metro area communities."

He is concerned residents who wanted to get a one-dose vaccine may now delay getting a vaccine or may not get vaccinated at all. 

As of Tuesday, less than 25 percent of Elbert County's eligible population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It is one of the lowest numbers in the state. 

"We did not rely on [Johnson & Johnson] at all, to date," Smith said. "However, it was certainly within the toolbox for options moving forward."

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Elbert County will continue its vaccination clinics by providing Pfizer and Moderna. Smith said the county relies on the support of Tri-County Health Department and Lincoln Public Health to administer doses to residents.

"We don’t have cold storage capacity," Smith said. "We don’t have a nurse to offer those inoculations so we are very dependent on the generosity of our neighboring local public health agencies to administer vaccine to our own residents."

The single-dose vaccine makes it easier for counties to fully vaccinate rural residents who live far away from vaccine clinics. Clear Creek County Public Health temporarily cancelled two J&J vaccination clinics for this week. 

Summit County is seeing the same thing. During a Board of Health meeting on Tuesday, officials said Summit Community Care Clinic canceled its Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics for Wednesday and Friday.

One vaccine option is off the table for now but Elbert County is confident doses are still available for residents who want it. 

"It will necessitate redoubling of our efforts that the vaccines are safe and effective," Smith said.