SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County stopped administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to staff and prisoners on Friday, April 9 — the same day a 45-year-old incarcerated man who received the one-shot inoculation died at the facility, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
The DOC on Tuesday stopped administering the vaccine systemwide. That came after receiving guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which instructed all COVID-19 providers to “pause” their use of the vaccine until at least April 20, “as we await further guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration].”
In a joint statement released Tuesday, the CDC and FDA recommended a nationwide “pause” while they investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots in six women that occurred between six and 13 days after they were vaccinated.
Maria Bivens, a DOC spokesperson, said the incarcerated man at SCI Phoenix had “significant comorbidities” and died 48 hours after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She said it’s unclear how the man died — the department has yet to receive an autopsy report. His name was not released.
“Presently, there is no clear causal relationship between that death and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” said Bivens.
In accordance with FDA guidelines, the man’s death was reported to the agency and the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In consultation with the Bureau of Health Care Services and out of an abundance of caution, Secretary [John] Wetzel had temporarily ceased the distribution of vaccine at SCI Phoenix until this case is further reviewed,” said Bivens.
The single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been used to vaccinate many vulnerable and underserved populations, including people who are homebound and those who are experiencing homelessness, because it does not require a follow-up appointment.
The DOC began vaccinating staff and incarcerated people at three of its 23 correctional facilities in mid-February — SCI Laurel Highlands, SCI Waymart, and SCI Muncy. Those prisons are federally designated long-term care facilities, with more than half of their populations being 65 and older.
Incarcerated people and staff at those facilities received the two-shot Moderna vaccine. Bivens said Tuesday the DOC will continue distributing the Moderna vaccine.
Starting the week of April 5, the department began distributing and administering doses of the J&J vaccine to staff and incarcerated people in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, with priority going to the most vulnerable individuals.
The effort was lauded as a “turning point” by prisoners’ rights advocates, who have been urging Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature to release more vulnerable incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of 119 prisoners and four DOC employees.
To date, approximately 19,318 prisoners and staff members have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Bivens. Eighty-nine of those individuals experienced adverse reactions.
As of March 31, the latest date for which data is available, the DOC housed 37,187 prisoners at its 23 correctional facilities. There were additional 263 individuals at the Quehanna Boot Camp.
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