Smokers In Indiana Can Obtain COVID Vaccine Before Teachers Due to Change in State Guidelines

Indiana state health officials are permitting smokers on COVID-19 vaccine waitlists over teachers, angering school professionals.

"According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], smokers and people suffering severe obesity are at higher risk of severe illness or death and therefore can be considered for standby list," a spokesperson for the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) said in an email to WISH-TV in response to the move. "We follow the CDC's recommendations."

Indiana counties will each be responsible for deciding whether or not to allow smokers on the vaccine wait lists—and the move does not mean if someone is a smoker they can simply schedule a vaccine appointment online. The state is still administering its doses only to key age groups, healthcare workers and first responders.

Indiana state health officials have permitted smokers to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines, angering teachers who have struggled to receive doses. A woman wearing a face mask smokes a cigarette in the street amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 26, 2020 in New York City. KENA BETANCUR/Agence France-Presse/AFP via Getty Images

But the state's move does impact who is able to sign up for vaccine standby lists to receive leftover doses—and Indiana has been tightening control over vaccine standby lists over the course of the month. In a January 30 letter to vaccination sites, Indiana's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver ordered vaccination sites to cancel and notify anyone who was incorrectly told they qualified and had gotten on a waitlist.

This impacted a number of Indiana teachers, who had been signing up for standby lists to receive unused vaccines and avoid waste, WFYI reported. Because teachers are not officially eligible for vaccines in Indiana, a number of teachers were recently removed from the standby lists. The ISDH said these teachers were moved down the list because their professional category is not officially considered a state priority group, therefore they're ineligible to receive shots. Only teachers aged over 60 years old would qualify.

Now that smokers have received priority status ahead of them on standby lists, teachers are even more upset, especially as schools look to reopen as soon as possible.

"We find it extremely frustrating that the Indiana State Department of Health continues to cherry pick from the CDC recommendations, when it very clearly states that educators should be getting vaccinated right now," Jennifer Smith-Margraf, Vice President of the Indiana State Teachers Association said to WISH-TV.

As of its February 19 guidelines, the CDC classifies teachers, support staff and daycare workers has "frontline essential workers." Indiana has not yet followed suit.

Vaccine waitlists:

✅ Smokers

❌ Teachers

❌ School Staff

— Indiana State Teachers Association (@ISTAmembers) February 26, 2021

The ISDH also denied a statement that it wasted any vaccines by taking teachers off the standby lists: "We ask every clinic to keep a standby list of people who meet current eligibility requirements so that every dose can be administered, and only one one-hundredth of the doses we have received have been wasted, primarily due to a vial or syringe breaking."

The scientific community has agreed on evidence showing smokers are a priority group for protection from COVID-19. Habitual smoking is associated with a great chance of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, according to a Cleveland Clinic study published in January in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal. Another study published in November by the University of California, Los Angeles found that COVID-19 is worsened in smokers' airways. Other researchers have found that smoking can weaken the body's immune response and increases the risk a patient may need a lung transplant if they are severely ill, USA Today reported.

Newsweek has reached out to the ISDH for comment on its updated vaccine waitlists.