At first, New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccination plan made sense to teachers.
The state started with frontline health workers, then residents of long-term care facilities, followed by police and firefighters.
But on Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that around 2 million smokers would become eligible for the vaccination, along with millions of people aged 65 or older or with pre-existing conditions.
Teachers? Still not on the list. And they are “rather irritated” about it, said Susan McBride, president of the Bergen County Education Association.
“I think putting smokers first as a group has insulted educators,” she said. “(We) were very inclined to believe that we were imminent in the hierarchy of vaccinees, and that seems to have changed since the press conference (on Wednesday).
The heated national debate over the next vaccine candidate continues as states grapple with a limited supply and overwhelming demand for coveted doses. McBride and other union leaders have said they understand the challenge state leaders face. Yet prioritizing smokers over teachers and some other essential workers is arguably the most controversial decision in the rollout of vaccination in New Jersey.
“A lot of people have kind of reacted to the smoking part,” 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 that puts you in front of someone who doesn’t – it’s not just the educators, I think the general public is not happy about this. “
The state said it was following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which classifies smoking as a condition that puts individuals at increased risk of serious illness from the virus, just like those who are obese or suffer from dementia. ‘heart disease.
The decision is up to who is most at risk of dying from COVID-19, said Donna Leusner, spokesperson for the State Department of Health.
“If a person who smokes gets COVID, they get sicker a lot faster,” Leusner said. “Our goal is to save as many lives as possible and to promote vaccination among the groups most at risk.”
New Jersey has received 658,800 doses of the coronavirus vaccine, according to figures tracked by the CDC. State officials reported on Thursday that 300,213 doses had been administered – including 264,556 first doses and 35,512 seconds.
Meanwhile, the state announced another 5,967 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, a day after setting a record high 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 is also urging anyone who smokes to quit, Leusner said.
Prioritizing smokers is good policy because it can reduce the number of people who need to be hospitalized, said Stephanie Silvera, epidemiologist at Montclair State University.
“If the goal of vaccination is to reduce the number of cases, and therefore reduce the number of people hospitalized, then we need to create a vaccination plan that does not judge the value of those who need to be vaccinated,” he said. she declared. .
But Judith Lightfoot, head of infectious diseases at Rowan University, called the decision to vaccinate all smokers, regardless of their age, “bizarre.”
“From a medical point of view, smokers hurt a lot with COVID,” she says. “But I can also argue that anyone with COVID without a health problem could be just as poor, regardless of your age.”
She and Silvera agreed, however, that judging who most deserved to be vaccinated isn’t as important as getting people vaccinated, period.
“I could say, ‘You have diabetes because you’re overweight,’” Lightfoot said. “Or, ‘You got HIV from your sexual behavior.’ The company can continue indefinitely. “
Educators probably have no problem being behind a cancer survivor or someone with diabetes, Rosamilia said. It is the fact that smokers are actively making the choice to do something unhealthy that bothers people, he said.
Nick Zaneto, a teacher and trainer at Metuchen High School, said the students were taught to avoid bad habits like smoking.
“And it almost looks like a reward,” he says.
Getting teachers vaccinated will be a key step towards reopening schools and should be one of the state’s top priorities, McBride said.
“I think people who choose to smoke shouldn’t be given priority over public school workers who are essential workers in the state of New Jersey and who educate hundreds of thousands of students,” he said. she declared.
Educators and health experts have warned that vaccinating teachers alone is not enough to fully reopen schools. But it could go a long way in expanding in-person teaching, they said.
New Jersey started the week with just 79 school districts offering full in-person instruction. COVID-related staff shortages have made it difficult for some districts to stay open, and some large school systems do not plan to reopen 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 fully virtual education for the remainder of the school year.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it was “incredibly frustrated” at the failure of the federal government to distribute the vaccine as quickly as promised. He is urging the state to do everything in its power to speed up access to vaccines for educators, spokesman Steve Baker said.
“Our schools are too important to wait an extra day than necessary,” he said.
The expansion of vaccine eligibility announced by the state this week will at least allow some educators to get vaccinated, including those who are most vulnerable due to their age or health, Rosamilia said. .
He hopes an announcement that all educators are eligible will come as early as next week.
“I think if next week comes around and we don’t see that, I think the impatience will grow,” Rosamilia said. “This is a serious situation and we hope things will change soon.”
Journalist NJ Advance Media Matthew Stanmyre contributed to this report
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Adam Clark can be reached at [email protected]. Got a tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.