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States Say Large Amounts Of J&J Shots May Be Wasted If Not Used Soon

NOEL KING, HOST:

Public health officials across the country are trying to figure out how to get hundreds of thousands of Johnson & Johnson vaccines into people before they expire in a few weeks. From member station WCPN ideastream in Cleveland, here's Anna Huntsman.

ANNA HUNTSMAN, BYLINE: Here in Ohio, hospitals and health departments are trying to distribute about 200,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine set to expire on June 23. In Summit County in the northeast part of the state, Health Commissioner Donna Skoda says they still have 2,000 doses remaining.

DONNA SKODA: We're worried. I mean, we keep reaching out to all of our partners. We tried to go back to places we've already been and said, hey, we - you know, we have more. Would you like more? The problem is they're trying to get rid of what they have, too.

HUNTSMAN: Skoda says her department lost crucial time when the vaccine was temporarily paused due to some safety concerns in April. Less than two weeks later, it was determined safe. The vaccine surplus is not just a problem here. State officials in West Virginia, California and Pennsylvania are also sounding the alarm and have asked to transfer their doses to other states. But Johns Hopkins infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja says most states already have supply. It's the demand that's the problem.

AMESH ADALJA: I think it became clear when we saw the way that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine - the demand for it has never been as robust as for the other two vaccines. Also, it is the last of the three to get emergency use authorization - that there was going to be, you know, excess doses eventually.

HUNTSMAN: He says another option is to ship the vaccines to other countries, where the need is greater. But the FDA and the White House haven't yet worked out a plan to coordinate that effort. Adalja says a more feasible option might be for states to work with regulators to see if their extra vaccines can still be used after the expiration date.

ADALJA: What they could do is test lots of it to see, you know, is this immunogenic? Does it have the same potency as it would have prior to the expiry date? And there have been efforts to try and - to encourage governors to do that with some of the stocks they that have on hand.

HUNTSMAN: But time is running out for such an effort. And states would have to conduct trials and tests on these doses within the next two weeks. Johnson & Johnson has already been running tests but says results aren't due for about a month. In the meantime, vaccine providers across the country are trying to reroute their extra doses to nursing homes and pharmacies. And health departments are offering incentives to encourage vaccinations. Skoda says her department will give out grocery gift cards to people who get the shot. But it might not be enough.

SKODA: It's almost heartbreaking when you know around the country that you need it elsewhere, you know? We need it around the world. And so it's just - it's a big, huge disappointment that we can't push out this next 200,000.

HUNTSMAN: More than 45% of Ohio's population is vaccinated. That's higher than some states, but below the national average of 53%. Officials worry the decline in vaccination interest might undercut these efforts to find more people to inoculate before the vaccine itself goes to waste.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Huntsman in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.