AUGUSTA, Ga. – Two Augusta clinics serving the some of the most vulnerable patients are planning how to use millions in new federal funding to expand their COVID-19 outreach efforts and help vaccinate those patients. Those efforts were complicated Tuesday by the decision to pause usage of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation Tuesday to “pause” vaccination with the J&J vaccine after six women developed severe blood clots after receiving it. One of those patients died and another is in critical condition, said Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
Federal officials stressed that the pause is out of “an abundance of caution” and noted that the cases are “extremely rare,” with more than 6.8 million doses of the vaccine already administered, said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will be reviewing the cases Wednesday and possibly issuing recommendations, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.
The pause had an immediate impact on Medical Associates Plus in Augusta, a community health center, said CEO J.R. Richards.
“We had some patients scheduled to take the Johnson & Johnson and we had to cease that as of today because of the CDC’s recommendation to halt,” he said. Staff are calling those patents to cancel and potentially reschedule them to receive the Moderna vaccine, he said.
Christ Community Health Services in Augusta, another community health center, was planning a clinic for the homeless where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would have been ideal, said nurse manager Christine Coxwell.
“It’s a little bit harder to do that now,” she said. “We need a one-dose vaccine.”
Both Medical Associates and Christ Community are in the planning stages for how they will spend allocations they received as part of the American Rescue Plan to expand vaccination efforts to underserved communities. Medical Associates received $3.6 million and Christ Community got $2.26 million to further expand outreach they were already doing in many cases, part of more than $143 million that went to 35 centers in Georgia. Those centers have until May 30 to submit budgets to the federal government for approval for how they will spend the money.
As part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christ Community last year had outreach and was “providing screenings to high-risk populations, which included all of the Augusta Housing Authority senior living facilities, and several of the other low-income high-risk settings in the community, such as (apartment complexes like) the Bon Air, Maxwell House and Richmond Summit,” said Dr. Robert Campbell, medical director and co-founder of Christ Community. “Then also retooling our systems so we could continue to provide high quality primary care access in our patient population.”
Part of its response will likely be expanding that access through a third clinic in south Augusta off Peach Orchard Road, he said.
“The access to those sorts of services for low-income populations in our community is still poor,” Campbell said.
Access to vaccine in Augusta seems to be good overall, but the clinic will continue to work with partners including the Georgia Department of Public Health “to make vaccine available to specific populations that may have challenges that prohibit them from getting vaccines through pharmacies and those mass vaccination sites where online registration is the preferred method of access,” he said.
Part of Medical Associates’ response has wheels, in the form of a mobile clinic that it has already begun using for testing outreach to the community, Richards said. The clinic is already serving many of those who are underserved, with about 20% who are uninsured and many of whom have underlying health conditions such as diabetes that put them at increased risk from COVID-19, he said. The federal government is hoping clinics like his can reach “pretty much the indigent and disenfranchised,” Richards said.
Part of that outreach effort will be hiring community liaisons “that go out and educate the community on COVID vaccine and the importance of getting vaccinated and tested,” he said, “as well as address those concerns they have in regard to getting vaccinated.”
That became a little bit harder Tuesday with the news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Richards said.
“Again, education is going to be key in that was a small amount of the population who took the vaccine who had adverse effects,” he said. “But it definitely will impact those who already had some concerns around the vaccines. They’re going to be more apt not to want to take the J&J even when they lift” the pause.
Part of what will make the outreach more effective is the clinic has been in the community all along caring for people there, Richards said.
“Somewhere on this van it should say, ‘In the community for the community,’ because that’s what we believe in,” he said. “We believe in being here for the community, for any concerns that they have and making sure we are the safety net for those who are underserved and uninsured and vulnerable and lack access.”