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Tennessee, Virginia health officials halt use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The Tennessee and Virginia Departments of Health are halting use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine as federal officials investigate reports of six people developing a rare and severe type of blood clot after receiving the vaccine.

The decision of local officials to suspend use of the vaccines came hours after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for a pause in the vaccine’s use as the FDA conducts an investigation into the cases, which were all reported in women aged 18 to 48 about 6-13 days after vaccination.

The Sullivan County Regional Health Department and ETSU Health, which both had Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinics scheduled for this week, said they would cancel them.

ETSU Health Director of COVID-19 Response Dr. Leigh Johnson urged those with appointments to seek the vaccine elsewhere, while Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said the department would continue using Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-dose vaccine and “have plenty of vaccine.”

“Our greatest risk still comes from the disease,” May said. “We still have a high burden of disease, we have in our region over 100 people in the hospital, multiple people on ventilators and people still die from this disease, so it’s still important that we get everybody vaccinated.”

Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s corporate director for infection prevention, said the pause shows the system is working as designed and “is exactly what we want to see happen.” She said she hopes it won’t influence people’s decision on receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines in the region.

“These are three very independent vaccines, and it’s very important with COVID in the community, with deaths from COVID still happening, with transmission happening as we’re seeing numbers go up in younger individuals, it is as important as ever to go ahead and make that appointment, get the vaccine with Pfizer or Moderna and work towards getting our community vaccinated,” Swift said.

Swift said she hopes people understand the decision to pause the use of the vaccine shows the system is working as intended and is a way to keep them safe, though she worries it will lead to an increase in vaccine hesitancy.

“I hope people can hear that as the main message,” Swift said. “Obviously, my fear today is that this will contribute to more vaccine hesitancy. That’s extremely concerning to me, and so I hope people that have questions ask the questions, dig into the science, understand the process, talk to their health care provider and really not let this impact their decision for any COVID vaccine going forward.”

The CDC will hold a meeting on Wednesday of its Advisory Committee on Immunization to review the cases and their potential significance.

The decision by the federal agencies to call for a pause in its use came after several states issued their own pauses on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine following a spate of adverse reactions last week, though the immediate reactions are consistent with common side effects of other vaccines. To date, 6.8 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the country, the vaccine proving to be popular because it only requires a single shot.

“Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” the statement from the FDA and CDC read. “This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.

“Right now, these adverse events appear to be extremely rare,” the statement continued. “COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority for the federal government, and we take all reports of health problems following COVID-19 vaccination very seriously. People who have received the J&J vaccine who develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider.”

During a press conference Tuesday morning, Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said she expects the pause will only last “a matter of days.”

Tennessee health officials issued an advisory to vaccine providers telling them to label the vaccine doses “do not use” and keep them in storage until further guidance is issued. The vaccine “should not be discarded,” however.

Tennessee has had more than 318,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine delivered statewide, according to the TDH’s vaccine dashboard.

In a separate statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the TDH said vaccine supply continues to exceed demand and that officials “do not anticipate this shift will impact our efforts to vaccinate as many Tennesseans as possible” and that they will “continue to monitor the situation closely.”

“While the reports of serious adverse events after the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are rare, six cases out of nearly 7 million doses administered, TDH is taking necessary precautions and is coordinating with our vaccine providers that may have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in supply to ensure those in our state who are seeking a vaccine have access to vaccines manufactured by Pfizer or Moderna,” the statement read. “Both vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 after 14 days from the second vaccine dose. Both doses are required to achieve the best protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Shortly after the statement was released, the Virginia Department of Health announced it would “cease all Johnson & Johnson vaccines until this investigation is complete.”

Those with appointments to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Virginia will be contacted to reschedule. On Monday, the VDH announced the Mount Rogers Health District would host a 1,000-dose Johnson & Johnson clinic at Marion Senior High School in Marion, Virginia. Virginia has received just over a quarter of a million doses of the vaccine in total.

“This pause is reassuring in that it demonstrates that the systems that are in place to monitor vaccine safety are working,” Virginia State Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said in a statement. “We look forward to a thorough review by federal health officials. Meantime, we will continue Virginia’s vaccine rollout at this time with the other two authorized vaccines, developed by Pfizer and Moderna.”

Animal shelter plans kitten shower donation event

Tammy Davis isn’t having a baby, but that hasn’t stopped her from planning a baby — kitten — shower before the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter’s busiest feline season gets off to a roaring — meowing — start.

Davis, director of the shelter, said the facility will host a “kitten shower” on Saturday from noon until 5 p.m.

“It’s just like a baby shower, but for kittens,” Davis said. “We’re going to have a garden party outside the shelter. We’re asking for donations to help us prepare for the upcoming kitten season that’s about to hit.”

Last year, the shelter took in 1,777 cats and kittens, with the bulk of kittens coming in over the spring and summer months.

“It’s not uncommon in the

summer months for us to take in 300 to 400 kittens a month,” she said.”

Anyone who wants to drop items off curbside is welcome to the event as well, Davis said. And those who cannot attend but want to donate can send an order directly to the shelter from Chewy.com or Amazon.

In addition to refreshments — donated by Cakebuds and Food City — at the garden party, there will also be three gift baskets as door prizes.

“For every 14-pound or larger bag of kitten food, or at least two cases of wet food, your name will go into a drawing for one of the baskets,” Davis said.

“If you order from Chewy or Amazon and send us a private message on Facebook, your name can still go in for the drawing.”

Davis said all the kittens the shelter has right now are in foster homes because they are too young to be adopted, but people can walk through the shelter to see dogs and adult cats waiting for forever homes.

“This is also a great time to sign up to be a kitten foster as well,” Davis said.

The shelter will open at limited capacity, and guests must wear a mask.

Statewide new, active cases remain steady as region continues to see increase

While Tennessee has seen little growth in its rate of new cases or active case count, the same can’t be said for the state’s northeast region, which has seen its new case rate, active case count and positive test rate rise over the past month.

Over the past two weeks, Tennessee’s active case count rose from 12,979 to 13,392, or about 3.1%. Northeast Tennessee, meanwhile, saw its active case count grow from 1,189 on March 31 to 1,500 as of Tuesday — a 26.1% increase. The region’s seven-day average of new cases (137.8 on Tuesday) rose at a higher rate than the state’s as well, 30.3% to 13.7%.

The region also saw a sharp increase in its seven-day positivity rate since early March, peaking at 15.09% on April 8 — the highest reported since late January.

As of Tuesday, the region’s seven-day positivity rate was 14.52%, remaining flat from Friday. Tuesday’s daily positivity rate of 22.94%, however, was the highest reported since Jan. 13.

Hospitalizations were up in recent weeks, with the region reporting 28 new hospitalizations last week, tying the number reported between Feb. 15 and 21. The region reported at least 20 new hospitalizations for the past four weeks after seeing counts in the mid-teens in early March.

Deaths have not followed the same pattern, with the region going six weeks since it saw a weekly death toll above 10. Last week there were eight reported deaths in the region, which was tied for the second-most in a week during that span.

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Sullivan County Regional Health Department cancels mass vaccination event at BMS

The Sullivan County Regional Health Department canceled its three-day Johnson & Johnson mass vaccination event at Bristol Motor Speedway this week after federal officials called for a pause on the use of the vaccine due to six cases of people developing a rare and serious blood clot after receiving the vaccine.

Instead, the health department will remain at Whitetop Creek Park for vaccinations and will continue to use the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the three-day event. The hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and appointments are not required, though they are preferred. Visit vaccinate.tn.gov to schedule an appointment, or call (423) 279-2777.

Vaccines are open to anyone 16 and older, though those under 18 will need a parent or guardian present, as well as identification.

For more information, visit sullivanhealth.org/vaccines.

COVID-19: Interactive charts and graphs

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Governor includes $5M in budget for former Ashe Street Courthouse

The former Ashe Street Courthouse could soon receive some tender loving care courtesy of funding from the state of Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Lee has again included $5 million in his budget to help fund improvements to the building, an allotment that was originally included in his budget last year before the COVID-19 outbreak put the money on hold.

Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise and City Manager Pete Peterson traveled to Nashville in March to seek funding for the building, which serves as one of the major anchors for the West Walnut Street corridor.

Wise stressed that placement in the governor’s budget is just the first step. The budget will now go to the General Assembly for further review.

“We’re optimistic,” Wise said, noting that the request has support from the local legislative delegation. “I’m confident as that goes forward within the legislative process we’re going to be able to maintain support for that effort.”

Wise said multiple stakeholders have come together to appeal for state investment in the building, which the city requested with support from Washington County.

Once the funding is secure, Wise expects the next steps will involve city leaders sitting down with county officials to figure out how to repurpose the building. A new roof has been put on the structure, but Wise said there are other maintenance issues that need to be addressed.

Wise said local officials plan to turn the former courthouse into a resource center for entrepreneurs and business development.

The governor has identified rural economic development as a priority, Wise noted, and multiple factors helped local leaders make a case for public investment in the building. That included existing efforts to foster local startups in Johnson City and the city’s status as a regional hub for surrounding rural communities.

The courthouse is federally owned, but Washington County controls it and can use it as long as it maintains the building for a public purpose.

“It’s a good day for preservation, it’s a good day for the corridor, it’s a good day for the city and the county,” Wise said. “This is just one of those win-win-win situations.”

The news comes as Johnson City gets ready to make significant upgrades to the West Walnut Street corridor, a project that has been years in the making.

Work on the revitalization will start in June, which will involve replacing the existing streetscape with a new, pedestrian-friendly roadway that will include sidewalks, on-street parking and a bike lane. Officials expect the price tag for the road rehab will be approximately $25 million.

The historic building, at 401 Ashe St., was first known as the Johnson City Postal Savings Bank and Post Office in 1910.

It later became the county courthouse before housing the Washington County 911 Emergency Communications District for 30 years.

Although it was briefly used last year as a quarantine spot for homeless people who tested positive for COVID-19, the building has been mostly vacant since 911 moved to Boones Creek in 2017.

The structure is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We’re happy that the Governor continues to keep our request in his budget and appreciate his interest in our preservation efforts,” Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said in a statement. “The Ashe Street Courthouse is an important county-owned building in a corner of Johnson City that continues to be redeveloped for economic growth.

“This funding will be instrumental in making necessary improvements to the Ashe Street building to ensure its viability for future projects.”