Smokers over teachers in vaccine line? Murphy pushes back on narrative

Because of limited supply of vaccine, governor says N.J. is prioritizing by risk, not profession

Gov. Phil Murphy pushed back on the narrative that New Jersey was prioritizing smokers over teachers.

“This is mixing up apples and oranges for the sake of a quick headline, frankly, or taking a cheap shot,” he said.

“I understand the optics are here — and attacking folks who took up the habit of smoking and who are now addicted may be politically expedient. But, at this time, we are stuck in a position where we have to prioritize limited federal produced, or at least distributed, vaccine doses, based on medical fact and not on political want.

“We need to save lives, and we need to protect our hospitals.”

Murphy said making sure hospitals are not overrun by patients is key.

“One thing that cannot happen is to have our hospital beds, or especially our intensive care beds, get overrun,” he said.

Reports Friday by New Jersey Advance Media/The Star-Ledger indicated leaders of teachers unions were dismayed that many teachers were behind smokers in the vaccination line.

And, the fact remains, smokers are prioritized over teachers who do not have a health issue.

Murphy said Friday that the state’s priority always has been to assist — and save — those who potentially are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Our first priority must be to vaccinate those at higher risk due to age or other health factors and put them in a greater vulnerability for severe COVID,” he said. “We cannot lose sight of the critical medical fact that this is a respiratory virus. Our goal from Day One has been the fight to save every life possible and make our decisions based on the facts, on the science, on the medicine. It is a simple fact, whether we like it or not, that smoking, like other chronic medical conditions, puts someone at a higher risk of a more severe case of COVID. In this, we are in agreement with the CDC guidance.

“Let’s be clear in our new eligibility: We are vaccinating educators, transit workers, grocery store workers and many other frontline workers. Whether it is because they’re also perhaps a volunteer firefighter, or that they have a high-risk medical condition that qualifies them for immediate vaccination.”

Murphy said the science backs the decision.

“We’re following the CDC guidance, which is backed up by numerous medical experts,” he said. “Let’s not fall down this rabbit hole of breaking people down into categories of job A versus job B, who was more politically favored, favorable to vaccinate. The correct comparison is, are you more vulnerable to a severe case of this virus? And/or hospitalization? Or are you not more vulnerable?

“Our job is to focus on vaccinating vulnerable residents first, and includes our seniors, our frontline health care workers and first responders. And, yes, that does include our blessing educators, essential workers and many other New Jerseyans who are at a higher risk because of their medical conditions.”

Under the expanded guidelines announced Thursday, more than 40% of the state is now eligible to be vaccinated.

Determining who is eligible — based on health conditions — is another problem. The state does not have the ability to confirm someone does or does not have a condition.

On Monday, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said the state is relying on the honor system.

“We are trusting the integrity of all of you to do the right thing in this regard and not, quote-unquote, jump the line,” she said. “We know everyone is anxious, but we’re asking for your patience as we await a larger supply of the vaccine. We currently do not require documentation to prove eligibility, just you, just your most trustful part of you.”

Murphy said less talk — and more vaccines — is what is needed. The state, he said, currently is getting about 100,000 doses of the vaccine per week.

“We need to end this divisive and unproductive debate,” he said. “This will solve all of the above if — we need a bigger supply of vaccines out of the feds, period — we get that supply. This debate goes away immediately. And for that, we need a federal administration that will unleash the process to meet demand.

“Given the broad pandemic relief measures outlined last night by President-elect Joe Biden, I have confidence that that increase will soon be coming. And, as I said, we’re ready. We should not hold back.”