The Slatest

Detroit’s Mayor Had a Point When He Turned Down Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine

Duggan raises both arms while speaking at a podium
Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at CityLab Detroit in 2018. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Officially, the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is welcome in Detroit again. On Friday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan walked back previous comments in which he’d said the city was not interested in acquiring vaccines from Johnson & Johnson.

During a Thursday news conference, Duggan had revealed that he turned down a shipment of 6,200 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, saying the city was able to meet current demand with the Moderna and Pfizer stores on hand. He added that he was also more impressed with the efficacy of the varieties in the city’s current stores.

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“So, Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best,” Duggan said on Thursday. “And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best.”

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He added: “The day may come in March or April when every single Moderna and Pfizer is committed, and we still have people who need a vaccine. And at that point we will set up a Johnson & Johnson center. I don’t see that in the next couple of weeks.”

Duggan revised his prior comment during Friday’s City Council address, according to an email sent to Slate from his press office.

“Every single eligible Detroiter can call today, make an appointment, and will receive a Moderna/Pfizer vaccine next week at the TCF Center. As vaccine eligibility expands, Detroit will open a second site offering Johnson & Johnson vaccines,” the mayor reportedly said. “I have full confidence that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is both safe and effective. We are making plans now for Johnson & Johnson to be a key part of our expansion of vaccine centers and are looking forward to receiving Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the next allocation.”

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In a follow-up statement, the mayor’s office added, “The city of Detroit is excited that there are now three highly effective vaccines that will save lives” and “Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are all highly effective at what we care about most, which is preventing hospitalizations and deaths.”

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“What we care about most” is not the same thing as “the only thing we care about,” though. Getting vaccinated is vital to both saving individual lives and protecting overall public health. While Duggan’s initial comments received a lot of pushback online, they were not ridiculous or particularly out of line with current public health goals—especially since, again, the city reportedly had enough vaccines to meet the current demand without needing to include the Johnson & Johnson shot.

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Under those conditions, Duggan decided to tell the public he was offering them the most attractive vaccination possible. This message, short-lived though it was, helped address the difference between public health goals and individual goals, a point laid out nicely by science reporter Maggie Koerth:

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It’s important to lay out the differences between the vaccines and how those differences may be perceived by people hoping to get vaccinated.

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All three vaccines prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19. But Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines have efficacies of 95 percent and 94.5 percent, respectively, at preventing moderate to severe disease. Johnson & Johnson has an efficacy rate of 72 percent in the U.S. (The most-recognized efficacy rate of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 66 percent, which is based on how it fared in other countries, some of which were fighting newer and more contagious variants of the virus.)

The primary upside of Johnson & Johnson’s option is that it doesn’t need to be frozen, which makes it easier to distribute to vulnerable communities such as people suffering from homelessness or those in rural areas. But when this is placed in the broader context of how racism and classism have informed policy decisions in the U.S.—and how that has worsened during the pandemic—it’s not out of line to have some pause about opting for a vaccine that may be perceived as “not as good” being used on predominantly Black constituents.

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