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DeWine watches Ohio University student be vaccinated

Pandemic ebbs, then returns Vaccines arrived, cases declined, and Athens County emerged from almost a year in isolation. But the delta variant sent caseloads soaring in the fall, pushing county deaths over 100. As the year ended, infections and hospitalizations hit new highs as the omicron variant arrived in Athens. The Athens City-County Health Department began distributing vaccines in mid-January; by late March, everyone over age 16 was eligible. Over the course of the year, the CDC extended approvals of COVID vaccines to teens (ages 12–15) and young children (ages 5–11). Nelsonville-York offered $100 to any students who completed vaccination through school-based clinics. When vaccines were approved for children ages 5 to 11, the health department offered vaccine clinics at elementary schools across the county; many parents took their kids to public clinics. The city of Athens exempted vaccinated people from mask requirements, but rescinded it in late summer. Enforcement of the ordinance was left to businesses — with mixed results, as residents complained on social media and letters to the editor that unmasked people shopped and worked out with no challenges. In the summer, the legislature passsed a bill that forbids local health departments from issuing blanket health mandates among people not diagnosed with any disease. Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper said the bill stripped the department of power to issue a mask mandate. The department’s county-wide mask advisory is unenforceable. Mask mandates were adopted by every school district by early September. Case rates bottomed out in early summer, but began rising again as the start of school approached. Athens City Schools closed briefly because so many bus drivers were ill that the district couldn’t provide transportation. The omicron variant sent infections and hospitlizations soaring again as the year ended, and in mid-December, the county hit a grim milestone: its 100th death from COVID, a near tenfold increase over 2020.

After touting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during his Monday visit to Ohio University, Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Tuesday that the state will suspend use of the single-dose shot following a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in response to exceedingly rare reports of potentially fatal side effects.

The change was made just weeks after the DeWine administration announced plans to supply universities across the state, including OU, with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in an effort to fully vaccinate students before they leave campus for the summer.

In response, OU announced on Tuesday afternoon that it will instead provide students with the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at upcoming clinics, but students must be in Athens 21 days following their first dose to receive the second, according to a university news release issued jointly by Special Assistant to the President for Public Health Operations Dr. Gillian Ice alongside Chief Medical Affairs Officer and Dean of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine Dr. Kenneth Johnson.

Residence halls close on April 30 and the semester officially ends May 1.

"Our assumption is that students can be responsible for their own schedule," Ice said in an email.

Students already registered to attend an upcoming clinic will automatically be offered the Pfizer vaccine. The decision to shift to the Pfizer vaccine was made in consultation with The Athens City-County Health Department and The Ohio Department of Health, according to the news release.

“We want to reaffirm that our confidence in the importance and efficacy of the other two available vaccines is not diminished by today’s news. We remain hopeful that if our campus community continues to participate in vaccination programs featuring Pfizer and Moderna that we can return to a much more normal campus in the fall,” the news release said.

The CDC and the FDA in a jointly released statement on Tuesday reported that of the nearly 7 million doses of Johnson & Johnson administered nationwide, six cases of rare and severe blood-clotting were discovered. All cases occurred between 6-13 days following vaccination in women between the ages of 18 and 48, according to the statement. The departments recommended “out of an abundance of caution” that providers pause using the vaccine.

The Athens City-County Health Department has administered a relatively small number of Johnson & Johnson doses when compared to the other two available vaccines, according to the release. Nearly 300 doses of Johnson & Johnson were administered on March 9, and on April 12 the Heritage Hall student vaccination clinic administered 349 doses. More than 200 doses of the vaccine have been administered in recent weeks through the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s mobile clinics that travel across southeast Ohio.

Jack Pepper, administrator of The Athens City-County Health Department, said in a text message that the department’s vaccine supply won’t be impacted by the university shifting its clinics to using Pfizer.

The university and the health department encouraged Johnson & Johnson recipients who may develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, shortness of breath, blurry vision or nausea to contact their primary care doctor immediately and inform them that they received the shot.

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