Kendra Lippy, a healthy 38-year-old, nearly died this spring after severe blood clots thought to be caused by the Johnson and Johnson vaccine sent most of her organs into failure. Now facing a life without most of her small intestine, she wants to see a complex and opaque federal compensation system for those who suffer a COVID-19 vaccine injury improved.
Her blood clots developed in March before the severe potential side-effect from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was well publicized. She spent 33 days in the hospital as her doctors tried to determine the source of the problem. The treatment, including 22 days in intensive care, left the Colorado Springs resident with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. She is anxiously awaiting the final total of her uninsured care.
Despite her experiences, Lippy is not against the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I was doing the right thing,” she said. She wanted to get vaccinated to protect her older co-workers at Cheers Liquor Mart, her family and the two men with disabilities her parents care for as host home providers. She also wanted to get back to traveling and felt like getting vaccinated was an important step in that direction.
Now her focus is on getting back to some normalcy. Before her illness she would take long walks, go to the gym regularly and run around with her 15-month-old nephew. Following weeks in the hospital, she is in occupational and physical therapy, working to regain basic functions like walking 20 minutes at a time and climbing her stairs at home.
Part of her road to recovery is federal compensation that will cover her extensive medical bills. She wants to see a federal compensation system that is fair to her and others who suffer rare complications from COVID-19 vaccines.
The only current option for people who suffer COVID-19 vaccine injuries is the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, a system known for turning most applicants down. Since 2010, the program has received 701 requests for compensation and granted financial benefits to 29 people. Currently, 210 of those claims are pending, according to data updated on April 1 by the program.
As of Wednesday, the program has received 152 claims involving COVID-19 vaccines and 293 involving other treatments, said David Bowman, spokesman with the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Administrative staff within the countermeasures program decide who receive benefits and review appeals. People alleging harm must file within one year of getting a vaccine, according to the program’s website.
The program also will not compensate anyone for non-economic damages, such as pain, suffering and disfigurement, said Stephen Justino, Lippy’s lawyer.
“It’s a woefully inadequate system,” he said.
Patients hurt by measles, flu and other common vaccines can apply for compensation through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a system that provides an open court process, compensation for pain and suffering, and a longer window to apply.
Congress must act to allow COVID-19 vaccine claims to go through the more transparent process, said lawyer Renée Gentry, director of the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic at George Washington University. Gentry said that would likely be the easiest way to ensure the system is fair for people like Lippy.
The existing option for those seeking compensation can seem simple, but those who don’t have a lawyer can get tripped up in the filing deadlines and other technicalities, she said.
“It’s a program to file and lose in,” she said.
The more transparent system has compensation built in for lawyers, she said, so it’s much easier to get professional representation.
Gentry expects Congress will allow COVID-19 cases to go through the more transparent process eventually, and her clinic is advocating for the change. But the shift may not happen in time to help people like Lippy, who were hurt at the beginning of the vaccination effort, she said.
In order for the better federal process to accept COVID-19 vaccination claims, they must be recommended for children and pregnant women and meet other specific criteria, Bowman said.
Since the Pfizer vaccine is already recommended for those 12 and up, Gentry said, she expects vaccines will be recommended for most children eventually and meet the criteria for the other system.
However, the more robust system is facing a large backlog of cases already without any COVID-19 claims. About 4,000 cases are pending, and only eight people are employed to judge them, Gentry said. It can take two years to get a trial scheduled and a year to get an opinion, the system needs Congress to allow it to have more judges, she said.
“It could collapse if we don’t get more people,” she said.
Justino is hopeful that Lippy’s story could help convince Congress to make changes to the system to provide a safety net for those who follow the government’s direction and get a vaccine, he said.
“We should also have a system that fairly treats the people who take the risk that society needs them to take,” he said.
For Lippy, who had no underlying health conditions, the rare risk became very real.
The first sign that Lippy’s vaccine had caused problems was a headache, she said.
“It felt like needles were pressing in my brain,” she said. “So I left work early, came home, tried to rest and take a nap.”
A few days later, she suffered severe abdominal pain and then started vomiting, she said. She was admitted to St. Francis Hospital in mid-March before the Johnson & Johnson blood clots had become major national news, and the federal agencies sent guidance to doctors on how to treat them.
The doctors started treating her blood clots with heparin, a common blood thinner. However, the medicine that would have made perfect sense to the physicians would have intensified the problem rather than relieving it, said Ross Kedl, a professor of immunology and microbiology at the University Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine.
“That was like giving her more poison,” he said.
For much her time in the hospital, physicians were perplexed and struggled to diagnose her condition, at one point they tried to determine if she had a blood disease, Lippy said.
Lippy was in a coma and most of her organs were failing, when a doctor called a meeting with her family to see if she would want her care to continue, her mother Debbie Lippy, recalled.
“I said, ‘She would want you to fight for her,’” Debbie Lippy said.
Debbie Lippy also suggested to doctors the COVID-19 vaccine could have caused her daughter’s blood clots after hearing about the rare side effect on the news. That was a key first step to recovery and led to doctors eliminating heparin as part of the treatment, she said.
“From that point on, all the questions were answered,” she said.
Lippy said she suspects her daughter was the seventh official case of severe blood clots caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that’s been identified.
While Lippy’s experience is tragic, the fact that researchers identified the Johnson & Johnson shots’ role as quickly as they did is a testament to the quality of the safety monitoring, Kedl said.
“They were finding close to a one in a million signal … To me that’s good evidence that the safety monitoring is working effectively,” he said.
Now back at her parent’s home recovering, Lippy is learning to live with a small intestine that is 90 centimeters long and working with professionals on a long-term diet. A large portion of the intestine died without blood supply and left her reliant on receiving some nutrition intravenously, through her arm.
She hopes to go back to work in the fall at least part-time at the Cheers Liquor Mart where she was the office manager, and the shop is holding her job for her.
“I am not a person that is going to sit still,” Lippy said.