As New Jersey realigned its COVID-19 vaccine priority list to follow updated CDC guidance starting Thursday, social media was ablaze over the green light given to smokers in particular over educators.

"New Jersey is following CDC guidance that lists smoking as a condition that puts an individual at increased risk of severe illness from the virus," a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said in a written response to Townsquare Media News.

"Nicotine is one of the most powerful addictions. Smoking put individuals at higher risk for more severe disease. If an individual who smokes gets COVID, they get sicker much quicker. Our goal is to save as many lives as possible and to promote vaccination among the highest risk groups."

The same statement confirmed that teachers in New Jersey still have not been given the go-ahead to seek appointments for shots based on their profession alone.

"Pre-K-12 educators are in 1B, but we have not fully moved into 1B.The Department is following CDC guidance," the spokeswoman said, noting that New Jersey’s phased approach is informed by the CDC, its Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the state Department of Health Vaccine Task Force.

“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,” New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said in a written statement on Thursday.

“We are incredibly frustrated with the federal government’s failure to roll out vaccine as quickly as promised as well as newly-imposed rules that impact public schools and the people who work in them," he said. “In the meantime, we have urged the Murphy administration to do everything in its power to speed up vaccine access for educators. Our schools are too important to wait one day longer than necessary."

The Burlington County Board of Commissioners on Thursday called on the state to make teachers and other educators a higher priority for receiving COVID-19 vaccinations.

New Jersey began vaccinating health care workers and seniors and staff at long term care facilities in mid-December, as part of Phase 1A of the state vaccination plan.

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has said that more than 230,000 doses of vaccine from the first rounds delivered to New Jersey have been set aside for the long-term care populations, and continue to be given as quickly as staffing allows.

Police, firefighters and other first responders also have begun vaccinations as the first section of Phase 1B announced Jan. 6 by Gov. Phil Murphy.

On Wednesday, the Murphy administration said it was opening up vaccine eligibility to residents 65 or older and residents 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions as defined by the CDC. These conditions added Thursday to the Phase 1B of vaccine eligibility include:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Down Syndrome
  • Heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 kg/m2 or higher but < 40 kg/m2I)
  • Severe Obesity (BMI ≥ 40 kg/m2)
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus

Educators, food service workers, daycare employees and public transit workers remained on-hold as of Thursday, though also grouped as Phase 1B under the state's vaccine plan.

“In-person instruction is critical for the children of New Jersey and their educational and emotional development. It is also essential to repair the economy, as parents must return to the workforce. This is a notion that Governor Murphy has repeatedly supported long before schools reopened in the fall," Dan Mitzner, the director of state political affairs for Teach Coalition, said in a letter Thursday to the commissioners of the state departments of Education and Health.

Teach NJ is a nonpartisan organization advocating for private schools. It is part of the multi-state Teach Coalition, a project of the Orthodox Union.

"Prioritizing teachers and staff will ensure that schools can continue to remain open by allowing our educators to be vaccinated now,” Mitzner said.

"But you can't get an appointment anywhere & now younger people are jumping the line...what about teachers and people like my mother who is over 75. This rollout is chaos," a Twitter user with the handle Mrs. B said on Thursday in response to Murphy's announcement.

"What about teachers? Seems like the line we are all in got cut by this group," Cari Cooper tweeted to the governor on Thursday.

"How about the individuals who TEACH in the schools and are going back to the building with no vaccine in site? This is ludicrous," another respondent on Twitter said, with the handle NotForNothing.

Similar concerns also were raised on the state Department of Health Twitter feed.

"What about our plans to re-open schools? Why have educators been pushed back down the list for vaccines. Thousands of us are still teaching in school buildings. If we can’t get vaccines, MAKE IT MANDATORY THAT ALL LEARNING IS VIRTUAL (and keep our educators alive)," a Twitter users with the handle "teapea" tweeted in response to the message about the state's new vaccine scheduler website.

As of Thursday, two of the six of the state's previously announced "mega sites" for vaccinations were open to administer doses, in Morris and Gloucester counties.

“Discovering the vaccine is in short supply after months of waiting is understandably frustrating, but I’m asking residents to please be patient a bit longer as we expand vaccine access to more residents,” Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, said in a written statement on Thursday.

DiMaso also noted that appointments can only be made based on vaccine supply.

“While there have been areas I believe could have used more planning, there are a lot of moving parts to this continued vaccine rollout. We should have further information in the next week or so from the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey regarding the specific opening of a vaccine mega site at Bell Works in Holmdel,” DiMaso said.

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