New Jersey faces criticism over decision to expand vaccine eligibility to 2 million smokers

Updated 7:13 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2021

TRENTON (WCBS 880) — New Jersey’s vaccine prioritization includes more than 2 million people who smoke, and some are criticizing the decision.

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said the state was expanding its vaccination program to include residents age 65 and over, as well as those between the ages of 16 and 64 with underlying health conditions.

While some of those conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease and heart conditions, in New Jersey, it also includes 2 million people who smoke.

Some people criticized the state for prioritizing people who they say chose to put themselves at greater risk by smoking cigarettes. However, the state stands by the decision with Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli saying, “smoking puts you at significant risk for an adverse result from COVID-19.”

Rutgers University professor of medicine Dr. Rey Panettieri tells WCBS 880 that New Jersey is simply trying to “target high risk individuals” to get the coronavirus vaccine.

He says the longer we debate about who should get the vaccine, the more people die from the disease.

“I mean I think at this point, we quibble over ‘you’re 1A’ and ‘you’re 1B’ and’ you're 2’ and as we're arguing, patients are dying of COVID,” Dr. Panettieri said.

He says it’s a known fact that smokers may be at risk of dying from COVID-19 if they were to get it.

“We know these individuals are at greater risk,” he said. “There are also greater risks, by the way, for cardiac disease and high blood pressure, which are also risk factors for more severity to COVID-19.”

Dr. Panettieri says it’s hard to decide which health conditions qualify more for a vaccine over another.

“It's very hard, ethically, to draw lines in the sand to say, ‘You don't qualify for potential immunity to an infection because of your habits and your behavior,’” the doctor said.

Gov. Murphy addressed the criticism Friday.

"Let's not fall down this rabbit hole of breaking people down into categories of job A versus job B and who is more politically favorable to vaccinate," Murphy said. "The correct comparison is are you more vulnerable to a severe case of this virus and/or hospitalization or are you not more vulnerable," Murphy said. "Our job is to focus on vaccinating vulnerable residents first, that includes our seniors, our frontline health care workers and first responders. And yes, that does include our blessed educators, essential workers and many other New Jerseyans who are at a higher risk because of their medical conditions. What we need to solve end this divisive and unproactive debate is a bigger supply of vaccines out of the feds."

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