TRENTON, NJ – This week, New Jersey made millions of people eligible to receive the covid-19 vaccine, including smokers, a move that has sparked complaints about their passage to the front of the inoculation line.
Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has made people 65 and older and those 16 and older with health conditions eligible for the vaccine. It started on Thursday. New Jersey’s list of conditions mirrors that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and includes cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses.
Smoking is also listed. Wait. Why?
Here’s a look at a question that made headlines this week.
Why is smoking on a list of medical conditions?
This goes to people who are at “significant risk” of unwanted illness from the coronavirus. Smokers are included in the group because their tobacco use inhibits their lungs and COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, according to health officials.
But there is more to this.
Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state’s immunization schedule aims to get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possible, starting with those who are most likely to get serious illness from the virus.
Murphy put it this way, “We can’t be too bureaucratic about this.”
Teachers in particular have expressed concern that smokers might get the vaccine before they do.
Don’t divide people into “Job A versus Job B,” the governor said.
And the other states?
New Jersey, like other states, uses CDC guidelines to determine who falls into which category. For example, the 65 and over cohort and people with health problems are grouped together. Smokers are included in the CDC guidelines, so that’s not New Jersey’s idea.
But what varies by state is when each group gets the vaccine. New Jersey started with healthcare workers, nursing home staff and residents, then moved on to first responders like police and firefighters.
Next are the elderly and people with health problems, but other states have gone in different directions. For example, teachers are eligible in many states under what the CDC calls Population 1b, including neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, but not yet in New Jersey.
What’s wrong with smoking anyway?
Smoking has gone from being widespread and fashionable to diminishing and stigmatizing over the past decades, as more and more information about its dangerous effects on human health has become known. Businesses and governments have cracked down on smoking in the workplace and in restaurants.
In 1998, an agreement between tobacco companies and most states limited marketing and required companies to pay an annuity to the states, forever.
Health insurers also charge additional fees for smokers.
So why, people ask, should someone who has knowingly started smoking be on an equal footing with, say, an octogenarian who is also at risk but who does not smoke?
State Department of Health emphasizes that nicotine in tobacco products is addictive and people who smoke should quit, and if they need help they can get it at njquitline.org .
While the addition of smokers to the list of those eligible for the vaccine has attracted attention, a bigger problem is at stake: the lack of vaccine supply.
For example, New Jersey currently receives about 100,000 doses per week. But it would take about 470,000 a week to meet expected demand, Persichilli said.
That would be enough to vaccinate 70% of the adult population, or 4.7 million people, in about six months, which is the state’s goal.
The governor put it this way: supply does not meet demand.
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