At first, New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccination plan made sense to teachers.
The state began with frontline health care workers, then residents of long-term care facilities followed by police and firefighters.
But on Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced an estimated 2 million smokers will become eligible for vaccination, along with millions of people who are 65 or older or have pre-existing conditions.
Teachers? Still not on the list. And they’re “rather incensed” about it, said Susan McBride, president of the Bergen County Education Association.
“I think the prioritizing of smokers as a group has insulted educators,” she said. “(We) were very much led to believe that we were imminent in the hierarchy of vaccine recipients, and that seems to have been changed as of (Wednesday’s) press conference.”
The heated national debate over who should be next in line for vaccination continues as states grapple with a limited supply and overwhelming demand for coveted doses. McBride and other union leaders said they understand the challenge state leaders face. Yet the prioritization of smokers over teachers and some other essential workers has emerged as arguably the most controversial decision in New Jersey’s vaccination rollout.
“A lot of people sort of reacted to the smoker part of it,” said Anthony Rosamilia, president of the Essex County Education Association. “If at this point, in 2021, you don’t know how dangerous smoking is and you still choose to smoke and then that puts you ahead of someone who doesn’t — it’s not just educators, I think the general public is not happy about that.”
The state has said it is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists smoking as a condition that puts individuals at increased risk of severe illness from the virus, just like those who are obese or have heart disease.
The decision comes down to who is most at risk of dying from COVID-19, said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.
“If an individual who smokes gets COVID, they get sicker much quicker,” Leusner said. “Our goal is to save as many lives as possible and to promote vaccination among the highest risk groups.”
New Jersey has received 658,800 doses of the coronavirus vaccine, according to figures tracked by the CDC. On Thursday, state officials reported 300,213 doses have been administered — including 264,556 first doses and 35,512 second doses.
Meanwhile, the state announced another 5,967 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, one day after setting a record of 6,922.
Teachers remain in Phase 1b on the state’s priority list, and the next wave of eligibility is still being determined, according to the state. New Jersey also urges anyone who is smoking to quit, Leusner said.
Prioritizing smokers is a good policy since it may decrease the number of people who need to be hospitalized, said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University.
“If the point of vaccination is to reduce the number of cases, and therefore reduce the number of people who are hospitalized, then we need to create a vaccination plan that isn’t judging the worthiness of who needs to be vaccinated,” she said.
But Judith Lightfoot, the chief of infectious disease at Rowan University, called the decision to vaccinate all smokers, regardless of age, “odd.”
“From a medical standpoint, smokers do terrible with COVID,” she said. “But I can also make the argument anyone with COVID with no medical conditions could do just as poor, no matter what age you are.”
She and Silvera agreed, however, that judging who is most worthy of vaccination is not as important as getting people vaccinated, period.
“I could say, ‘You got diabetes because you’re overweight,’” Lightfoot said. “Or, ‘You got HIV because of your sexual behavior.’ Society can go on and on.”
Educators likely have no problem being behind a cancer survivor or someone who is diabetic, Rosamilia said. It’s the fact that smokers are actively making a choice to do something unhealthy that upsets people, he said.
Nick Zaneto, a teacher and coach at Metuchen High School, said students are taught to avoid bad habits like smoking.
“And this almost seems like a reward,” he said.
Getting teachers vaccinated will be a key step toward reopening schools and should be one the state’s highest priorities, McBride said.
“I think that individuals who choose to smoke should not be given a priority over public school employees who are essential workers in the state of New Jersey who educate hundreds of thousands of the state’s students,” she said.
Educators and health experts have warned that teacher vaccination alone isn’t enough to fully reopen schools. But it could go a long way to expanding in-person instruction, they said.
New Jersey began the week with just 79 school districts offering full in-person instruction. COVID-related staff shortages have made it difficult for some districts to remain open, and some large school systems don’t plan to re-open until March or later, meaning students will have spent a full year away from the classroom.
One district, Hillside Public Schools, has already announced it will remain in all-virtual instruction for the rest of the academic year.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it is “incredibly frustrated” with the federal government’s failure to distribute the vaccine as quickly as promised. It urges the state to do everything in its power to speed up vaccine access for educators, spokesman Steve Baker said.
“Our schools are too important to wait one day longer than necessary,” he said.
The state’s vaccine eligibility expansion announced this week will allow at least some educators to get vaccinated, including those who are most vulnerable because of age or medical condition, Rosamilia said.
He’s hopeful an announcement that all educators are eligible will come as soon as next week.
“I think if next week comes and we don’t see that, I think the impatience is going to grow,” Rosamilia said. “This is a serious situation, and we are hopeful that things are going to change soon.”
NJ Advance Media reporter Matthew Stanmyre contributed to this report
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