Illinois smokers are now among the priority groups eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
As a part of the state’s vaccination schedule, residents with certain high-risk medical conditions — including smoking — are now able to get shots, along with seniors and medical and essential workers.
The move to Phase 1B+ went into effect Feb. 25. The expansion was done in order to “advance the state’s goal of equitable distribution” to communities of color, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health website.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, being a “current or former cigarette smoker” puts you at greater risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
CDC statistics show that 21% of Native Americans smoke, the highest level among demographic groups. Whites are next at 15.5%, followed by Blacks (14.9%), Hispanics (9%) and Asians (7%).
“The smokers are much more vulnerable than normal people because the smoking would compromise your immune system fighting against infections and bacteria,” said Dr. Samuel Kim, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“Nicotine is an addictive drug. Instead of thinking of this as a habit and more as an addiction, then I think more people will be understanding of this decision,” Kim said.
Other than smoking, the included medical conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart conditions, immunosuppressed states from a solid organ transplant, obesity, pregnancy, pulmonary disease and sickle cell disease. The expansion overall will allow up to 3.4 million people in Illinois to receive vaccinations, according to the IDPH.
The CDC says about 15.5% of Illinois adults smoke, which could mean more than 1.5 million smokers could potentially be eligible.
Health officials in Chicago and suburban Cook County, as well as DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will counties, have said they don’t have enough vaccine to begin inoculations of medically vulnerable residents yet. However, other counties in the state have started doing so.
Some pharmacies, including Walgreens, have started vaccinating Illinois residents with health conditions.
In addition, a mass site that will be run by the federal government at the United Center on the Near West Side will start vaccinating those with health conditions at some point after it opens March 10, when it initially plans to limit shots to seniors.
How sites that administer the vaccine verify you have a priority medical condition is up to local health departments, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said last week.
How they will verify if you are a smoker is unclear.
“In order to ensure that individuals are in the correct current phase for vaccines, residents may be asked to provide supporting documents for either their status as essential workers or their underlying medical conditions,” Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer and co-lead at Cook County Department of Public Health, said in a statement.
Walgreens requires those that register for appointments to vouch online that they have a qualifying health condition.
In New Jersey, no proof or medical record is needed to get the shot, the New York Times reported.
Despite the CDC’s designation of smoking as high risk, at least one other state, Oregon, has excluded smokers from the list of medical conditions that qualify someone to get the vaccine, according to the Oregonian.
Chicagoans on Tuesday had mixed reactions to allowing smokers to join the groups of those who could be vaccinated in Illinois, and pointed out it could be easy to game the system.
“If they’re more at risk, I personally don’t have an issue,” said Gabriela Torres, of Pilsen. “I don’t want people dying.”
Another neighborhood resident, Emily Abarquez, said she could see how some people might object since smoking can be a “lifestyle choice.” She also questioned whether someone could just take up smoking and get the vaccine.
“If I really wanted the vaccine, and I knew that smokers would go before my group, I could just start smoking a pack a day,” said Abarquez, who said she personally didn’t mind that smokers were getting priority.
Brighton Park resident Javier Colin, who was smoking a cigarillo on the street Tuesday, said “I really don’t care, to be honest,” that he could get priority. He said he has no plans to get the vaccine now or in the future.