Virologist: Death toll from COVID for at-risk group is higher than from rare J&J side effect

Oct 6, 2021, 2:21 PM
vaccine side effect...
A sign for a King County Public Health COVID-19 vaccination clinic located at the Tukwila Village Farmers Market. The clinic will be at the market weekly through at least most of October. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A Seattle woman who got the COVID-19 vaccine sadly passed away from a very rare side effect of a blood clotting disorder. Her obituary says 37-year-old Jessica Wilson was vehemently opposed to taking the vaccine but got the Johnson & Johnson shot on Aug. 26, and she died less than two weeks later.

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So why do people develop blood clots from a vaccine in the first place?

“We don’t really completely understand this yet. We don’t really understand what causes it with both the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that’s available here, as well as the Astrazeneca vaccine that is available in Canada, and the UK, and elsewhere throughout Europe,” said Dr. Angela Rassmussen, virologist and weekly guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “But we do know that it is extremely rare.”

“I can tell you a little bit of a personal anecdote about this. I, myself, had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 5. I am under the age of 50. So I am in this prime risk group for developing this complication,” Rasmussen said. “But everything we know about it is that it is extremely rare.”

“Now, that doesn’t make it any less sad and tragic when it does happen,” she added. “But there’s only about seven cases per million doses given to people who are under the age of 50. While some might argue that any death is far too many, the death toll from getting COVID within that risk group is actually much, much higher than that.”

This is a very serious adverse event, she noted, but it’s also extremely rare.

“I would encourage people before getting really worried about their own risk to really educate themselves on what the relative risks are,” she said. “The risk of having this complication is extremely low. Your risk of having a more serious complication from getting COVID if you are in this age group, even if you are healthy and have no other pre-existing conditions is much, much higher than that.”

“For me, that was enough to sort of tip the risk-benefit analysis in favor of vaccination with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Rasmussen said.

Dr. Rasmussen also described the reporting system about adverse reactions or deaths and why the Johnson & Johnson is actually an example of how it works.

The side effect called TTS, which basically means that it causes blood clots in some rare cases, was identified by digging through the data in the VAERS reporting system.

“However, they did that by digging through cases where they could actually follow up and verify that this was in fact something that was linked to vaccination,” she said. “Somebody just going to access the VAERS system isn’t going to be able to do that follow up investigation which is absolutely crucial. So the reporting systems are absolutely necessary so that we do understand what the risks actually are. But looking at those reporting systems just in and of themselves is not a good way for somebody to try to understand what the risks actually would be from getting a vaccine. And especially doesn’t help you understand that relative to your risk of actually getting COVID-19.”

Dr. Rasmussen says she would still recommend the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to someone if they were unable to get an mRNA vaccine.

“For a woman who’s around 37, in her 30s, or early 40s, or late 20s, I would suggest going to get an mRNA vaccine,” Rasmussen said. “Now that said, if they are in a place where they don’t have access to the mRNA vaccines or it will be difficult for them to get a second shot, absolutely. Then I would recommend the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And I personally would get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine again myself if that was my option.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Rasmussen in the audio player above or online here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Virologist: Death toll from COVID for at-risk group is higher than from rare J&J side effect