Smokers get early access to COVID vaccine

Pharmacy director Gayle Butler, left, and nurse Cherry Costales, center, prepare Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center on Jan. 7 in Los Angeles, Calif. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Smokers can now light up the vaccination hotlines in many states.

New Jersey, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia are registering smokers to get the coronavirus vaccine early, according to a health care think tank.

“The goal is to get people at greatest risk,” said Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation. “By targeting those individuals, you can hopefully reduce the chance of them ending up in the hospital with more severe cases of COVID and at greater risk of dying.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said smokers should be vaccinated in Phase 1C, which includes people 65 to 74 years of age and those 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions. Phase 1A includes health care workers and long-term care facility residents, and Phase 1B includes people 75 or older and non-health care front line and essential workers.

The decision to prioritize smokers has been controversial, particularly in New Jersey, which has placed them before teachers.

But Dr. Albert Rizzo, a pulmonologist and chief medical officer at the American Lung Association, said there’s a reason smokers are among the groups that should be vaccinated early on.

“The coronavirus is a respiratory disease, so a smoker is at higher risk,” Rizzo said. “We know that smoking causes inflammation of the airways. When the virus affects us, it causes inflammation as well. Vaccinating smokers will help stem the tide of more and more people being hospitalized and help prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed.”

Dr. Richard Ellison, an infectious disease specialist with UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester said he agrees with the CDC guidance on smokers receiving a coronavirus vaccine in Phase 1C.

“I think it’s very appropriate to continue to follow the CDC guidelines and have a consistent approach with this,” he said. “Smoking does definitely put you at higher risk of getting hospitalized, so this is definitely a group that needs to be vaccinated.”

Smoking damages the lungs and the cells along the airway, putting smokers at high risk for COVID-19 complications, Ellison said.

“Unfortunately, smoking is an addiction so it’s not something that is easy for someone to give up,” he said.

Katelyn Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Command Center, said the state still has two more groups left in the first phase of vaccinations: home-based health care workers and health care workers not dealing with potential COVID-19 patients.

Smokers without another underlying condition remain at the bottom of the next phase of vaccinations, which includes people with two or more conditions and people 65 or older. The same goes in Alaska, North Dakota and Washington where smokers will have to wait until doses become available.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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