WATERTOWN — Jefferson County has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in New York state, but vaccine distributors in the county have noticed a drop-off in the number of new appointments being made for some versions of the vaccine.
According to state data, about 54% of eligible Jefferson County residents have received at least one vaccine dose and nearly 40% have been completely vaccinated. But as manufacturing ramps up and eligibility opens to nearly every adult, local providers have noticed their vials of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines aren’t flying off the shelves like they used to.
“There’s no question that demand is waning,” said Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators.
At Jefferson County’s collaborative COVID-19 vaccination site at Jefferson Community College, eligible people were once jumping at every opportunity to make appointments whenever a new clinic was announced. One clinic hosted in late February filled up all 400 available slots within 45 minutes of when it was announced.
But now, when the county announces new vaccine clinic appointment slots, many go unclaimed. A first-dose Moderna vaccine clinic with 500 doses scheduled for Wednesday still had more than 100 appointments available 24 hours after registration opened.
When a dose goes unused, Mr. Gray said the county typically allocates it to another clinic they’re running that week or tries to seek out another person who wants it.
Jefferson County isn’t the only vaccine distributor facing a drop in demand for certain versions of the vaccine. Nationwide, there are numerous reports of county health departments and local health care providers facing a drop in demand — the same time that vaccine production has ramped up.
In Watertown, Bolton’s Pharmacy is another vaccine distributor that’s noticed a drop in demand, specifically for the two-dose vaccines like Moderna or Pfizer. The Janssen single-dose vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, is proving to be extremely popular.
“I had 300 Janssen vaccines delivered Tuesday and they were all gone within 20 minutes online,” said Melissa A. Farman, operations manager and vaccine coordinator for Bolton’s Pharmacy. “It was absolutely insane.”
The issue is so pronounced that Bolton’s has temporarily stopped ordering Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and recently gave more than 400 doses to the Jefferson County Public Health Service to distribute. Most distributors are discouraged from stockpiling vaccines, and New York state regulations require that they give out every dose they receive in a week.
Mrs. Farman said that after speaking with patients, it seems the Janssen vaccine is more popular with people because it’s easier to get with a single dose and it’s more familiar technology than the mRNA-based Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mRNA vaccines utilize genetically engineered messenger RNA, which is a communication protein used by cells. Once a person is vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine, their immune cells begin making a harmless part of the virus that causes COVID-19, also known as SARS-CoV-2. The immune system then creates antibodies to fight that part of the virus, which will then fight any COVID-19 viruses that enter the body afterwards.
“I think the mRNA makes people nervous because it’s new in a sense; it’s only 10 years old,” Mrs. Farman said.
The Janssen vaccine is based on much older viral vector technology called viral vector. According to the CDC, to make the Janssen vaccine, genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is inserted into a different kind of weakened, living virus. That living virus then delivers the SARS-CoV-2 viral information to the patient’s immune cells, which respond the same way they would with an mRNA vaccine.
Mr. Gray said vaccine skepticism, largely driven by unfounded conspiracy theories, is also likely pushing down demand. He said the county and public health services across the country will likely have to start combating those conspiracies more forcefully in order to keep vaccination rates up.
At the Jefferson County site, the Janssen vaccine is also much more popular than the double-dose options. A clinic with the Janssen vaccine was announced at noon Tuesday with 390 appointments available. Within four hours, only 73 slots remained.
Mr. Gray said as eligibility for vaccinations has opened to every New Yorker over the age of 16, the county will have to focus on getting vaccines out to younger people who seem less interested in getting the doses.
Complicating that rollout is the fact that people ages 16 and 17 can only receive the Pfizer dose, which requires two shots. No Pfizer vaccine doses were received by the Jefferson County collaborative clinic this week.
Johnson & Johnson is currently researching whether its vaccine is safe for 16- and 17-year-olds to receive, and Mr. Gray said he’s hopeful that vaccine will be deemed safe for them because it will be much easier to distribute as it does not require a second dose.
“We kept hearing people were saying, ‘I don’t want Moderna, I don’t want Pfizer, I’ll wait for Johnson and Johnson,’” he said. “Well, Johnson and Johnson is here for one clinic, so we’ll see what happens.”
For younger people, Mr. Gray said he hopes they will begin seeking out vaccinations themselves more.
“Young people are the ones that yearn to have their lifestyles back,” he said. “We all do, but they do especially, and there is no quicker way to get our lifestyles back to normal than getting vaccinated.”
As vaccinations continue, Mr. Gray said he anticipates that the county will have to change its methods slightly to begin reaching people who are unable or unwilling to seek out doses themselves. He said the county is currently working with a number of emergency medical service agencies to get them ready to distribute doses of the vaccine with ambulances.
“We’ll be more mobile that way; we’ll be able to get out to farm settings where there are migrant workers,” he said. “That will also further our reach out to homebound people who may have been more difficult to reach until now.”