Gov. Phil Murphy pushed back Friday against criticism that the state included roughly 2 million smokers in the big expansion of coronavirus vaccine eligibility that started on Thursday, while leaving out some groups of essential workers like teachers.
The governor, speaking during his regular COVID-19 briefing, said he rejected the “false narrative” that smokers are jumping the line as a “cheap shot,” and noted that the state was following federal guidance by including smokers.
“I get it. I understand the optics here and that attacking folks who took up the habit of smoking and who are now addicted may be politically expedient,” Murphy said.
“But at this time we are stuck in a position where we have to prioritize our limited vaccine doses based on medical fact and not political want,” he said. “We cannot lose sight of a critical medical fact that this is a respiratory virus. Smoking like other chronic and medical conditions put someone at a higher risk. In this, we are in agreement with the CDC guidance.”
He added: “We need to protect our hospitals from a patient surge.”
Beginning Thursday, people 65 years old and older became eligible to get the vaccine in a massive expansion of the program by Murphy. People ages 14 to 64 with chronic illnesses, which included smoking, were also added to the list of people able to get a shot.
Previously, health care workers, people living and working in nursing homes and police and firefighters were the only people able to get a vaccine.
That means there are about 4 million people out of 9 million residents now eligible for the vaccine.
Many teachers are upset that smokers were granted access to the vaccine before educators, according to union leaders.
“I think the prioritizing of smokers as a group has insulted educators,” said Susan McBride, president of the Bergen County Education Association.
But demand continues to far outpace supply with about 100,000 doses being delivered to New Jersey each week.
More than 300,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in the state as of Friday morning, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. Of those, 273,335 were the first of two doses people will receive, while 37,077 were the second dose, according to the dashboard.
The single-day high so far was Jan. 8, when 24,482 doses were administered, according to the state.
New Jersey has averaged about 10,000 shots a day through the first 30 days of the program, including Christmas Day when no doses were administered. The state has been averaging about 17,000 shots a day over the last seven days, state records show.
The state has faced criticism for rolling out inoculations too slowly. Officials stress there may be an undercounting of the number of vaccines administered because of reporting delays and New Jersey, like other states, is depending on the federal government for its supply.
Officials have said doses should be available for the general public by April or May. Health officials have said they hope to vaccinate 70% of its adult residents — about 4.7 million people — by the end of May.
New Jersey health officials reported 5,490 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 67 additional deaths on Friday as vaccination locations reported a huge surge in appointments with the eligibility expansion that started a day earlier.
New Jersey’s top health official warned Wednesday the state is preparing for a “surge” in hospitalizations from the latest spike cases that could come as soon as next week and may trigger a new round of restrictions, particularly with elective surgeries.
While hospitalizations have remained between 3,500 and 3,900 for weeks, far below the more than 8,000 peak in the spring, Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said that hospital officials are concerned about the weeks ahead due to available staffing.
“We are preparing for the predictive surge that may start as early as next week into the middle of February,” Persichilli said Wednesday.
“What we will not have is the appropriate level of staffing that people are familiar with, conventional staffing,” she said. “So we will be working with our hospitals if they need to progress to what we call contingency staffing, and hopefully never crisis staffing.”
Murphy has warned that hospitalizations above 5,000 patients would likely trigger some new restrictions — particularly on elective surgeries, which include procedures like removing tumors.
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