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RI apologizing for thousands of early-morning robocalls regarding J&J vaccine

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – State health officials are apologizing after robocalls about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine blood-clot issue went out to thousands of people during early-morning hours.

The state started using its so-called Code Red notification system Friday to send out an automated message to roughly 27,000 J&J vaccine recipients, making them aware of ongoing safety concerns tied to the vaccine.

Listen to the automated message

But because the state set up the system in a way to try and “avoid overwhelming the phone systems,” the 55-second message went out to 7,000 people after midnight, according to R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken.  

“Many people did not answer, however the Department of Health apologizes for any inconvenience that people experienced,” Wendelken said Monday.

Following federal guidance, Rhode Island last week hit the pause button on administering the J&J vaccine after six of 7 million U.S. recipients reported experiencing severe and unusual blood clots.

In a briefing Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters the CDC and FDA are looking into “a handful of cases” that were reported after the recommended pause.

“We are working through and adjudicating them and verifying whether they do in fact reflect a true case,” Walensky said.

“We are encouraged that it hasn’t been an overwhelming number of cases. But we’re looking at seeing what’s coming in,” she added.

Federal regulators, meanwhile, are taking a closer look at the safety concerns, but President Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday told CBS’s “Face the Nation” he would be surprised “if we don’t have a resumption in some form by Friday.”  

In Rhode Island, the state has administered nearly 40,000 J&J vaccines, according to a Target 12 analysis of Health Department data. And while health officials came up with a plan to notify the recipients about the safety concerns, the state’s automated system was designed to make no more than 50 calls per minute – which ultimately took more time than planned and resulted in the early-morning phone calls, according to Wendelken.

“We have changed a setting in the system that will, in the future, automatically stop calls for the day at a particular time,” he added. “We have also made a setting change in the account so that it can do closer to 500 calls per minute.”

Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout has been moving along relatively consistently for several weeks, but there have been some early signs of a potential slowdown. The seven-day average of new people receiving a vaccine declined for seven consecutive days over the last week, totaling 5,965 new people on Sunday, according to a Target 12 analysis.

The weeklong decline started the same day Rhode Island stopped administering the J&J vaccine, which had been averaging about 2,600 doses each day during the week prior.

Health officials nonetheless remain optimistic the pause will not affect how quickly Rhode Island reaches vaccinating 70% of its population, pointing to tens of thousands of new vaccine appointments becoming available this week.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter-million residents became eligible for the first time Monday when Rhode Island Island expanded eligibility to everyone 16 years and older.

“Demand in Rhode Island is still high,” Wendelken said Friday.  

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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