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Frustrated Teachers, Cops & Firefighters Shown Back Seat as 2 US States Prioritise Vaccination for Smokers

Image for representation,

Image for representation,

Teachers in the state of New Jersey have expressed disappointment over the fact that smokers have been given precedence over essential workers like them.

The United States Centres for Disease Control (CDC) earlier this month listed smoking among the conditions that place individuals at a high risk of contracting "severe COVID-19-associated illness", making persons falling under this category eligible for vaccine in the early phases of inoculation. As a result, essential workers, especially teachers, are frustrated.

According to a report in CNN, teachers in the state of New Jersey have expressed disappointment over the fact that smokers have been given precedence over essential workers like them.

"We've said from the beginning the educators should receive priority access to the vaccine. It's an important step toward a safer return to in-person learning. We have been in constant communication with state officials regarding educators' access to vaccination. We have reiterated to them the need to do whatever is necessary to expedite that access even in light of revised federal guidelines from the Trump administration and a slow federal rollout of the actual vaccine," New Jersey Educators Association communications director Steve Baker was quoted as saying by CNN.

New Jersey and Mississippi have rolled out vaccines to smokers below 65 years of age. Several other states in the US, however, have listed smokers in the next phase, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

New Jersey's Democratic Governor Phil Murphy had made 16-year-olds and those older with medical conditions eligible for the vaccine on Thursday. Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state's vaccination schedule is about getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, starting with those who are most susceptible to severe illness from the virus.

"We cannot be overly bureaucratic about this...Don't break people down into Job A versus Job B," the Governor said.

The CDC has advised that smokers be vaccinated in phase 1c of the drive. However, the decision to open eligibility for the various constituents has been left to the states.

New Jersey, like other states, is using CDC guidelines to determine who is in which category. For instance, the 65-plus cohort and those with medical conditions are grouped together. What varies by state is when each group receives the vaccine. New Jersey started with health care workers and nursing home staff and residents, then moved on to first-responders like police and firefighters.

Next came seniors and those with medical conditions, but other states have gone in different directions. For example, teachers are eligible in many states as part of what the CDC calls the 1b population, including neighboring New York and Pennsylvania, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation , but not yet in New Jersey.

State officials, however, have maintained that the decision has been taken keeping in mind "medical fact and not on political want". "We need to save lives. And we need to protect our hospitals, by the way, from a patient surge," Murphy said. Smoking is understood as a health risk, a state health department spokesperson quoted as echoing the Governor's thoughts.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves had also announced that vaccines would now become available to people suffering from existing medical conditions as well as smokers. However, teachers, police officers and firefighters of the state were promised inoculation in the next round, he said.

New Jersey is home to roughly 2 million smokers who make up the largest population qualifying for the vaccine, the state's Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a news conference. Whether smoking is a matter of public health or a personal choice is a debate that has been sparked by New Jersey's move. The state health department has pointed out that nicotine in tobacco products is addictive and that people who smoke should quit.

While adding smokers to the list of people eligible to get vaccinated has attracted attention, a bigger issue is at play: the lack of vaccine supply.

For example, New Jersey is currently getting about 100,000 doses a week. But it would need around 470,000 per week to meet forecast 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 Phil Murphy put it this way: supply is not meeting demand.

(With Reuters inputs)