Assemblyman Brian Bergen’s Questioning of COVID-19 Vaccination for Smokers Gets Push Back from Gov. Murphy

Gov. Phil Murphy defended the protocols prioritizing smokers in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of teachers and other essential workers.

GOP Assemblyman Brian Bergen recently questioned placing smokers in front of the 116,000 public school teachers from the newly announced list of those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I am appalled that the Murphy administration would prioritize people who make the life choice to smoke cigarettes to receive the vaccine before our teachers and daycare employees on the front lines every day,” said Bergen (R-25)

New Protocols

Two additional categories of New Jersey residents became eligible Jan. 14 to receive the COVID-19 vaccination: residents aged 65 and older, and individuals ages 16-64 with certain medical conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from the virus. 

The conditions for those in the 16-64 age range include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, obesity and severe obesity, sickle cell disease, smoking, and type 2 diabetes. Individuals who are pregnant and those in an immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from organ transplant are eligible but should follow CDC guidance and first discuss vaccination with their medical provider before receiving the vaccine. 

In total, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli estimated 4.5 million residents—1.5 million 65 and older; 2 million smokers and up to 1 million with other chronic health conditions—are now eligible to receive the vaccine. 

Those newly eligible join healthcare workers and long-term healthcare residents in Phase 1A and law enforcement and fire professionals in Phase 1B in being eligible to be administered the vaccine.

Smoking a Personal Choice

But Bergen wondered why the Murphy administration and Assembly Democrats refuse to create policy that prioritizes personal responsibility and falls back on enabling people to make bad choices. 

“What we should be doing is helping smokers quit the terrible habit. I know how hard it is to quit and how serious the health effects of smoking can be,” explained Bergen, a former smoker who quit 16 years ago. “With that said, it is a personal choice to smoke and people should not get ahead in line for a vaccine because they chose a lifestyle that puts them at a higher risk.”

But at his press briefing, Murphy pushed back on what he called a “false narrative” the state is vaccinating smokers while not vaccinating another group.

Following CDC Guidelines

“Our first priority must be to vaccinate those at higher risk due to age or other health factors that put them at a greater vulnerability for severe COVID,” said Murphy on Jan. 15. “Smoking puts someone at a higher risk of a more severe case of COVID. In this, we are in agreement with CDC guidance.”

The governor clarified that new eligibility allows for the vaccination of educators as well as transit workers, grocery store workers, and other frontline workers.

“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,” he stated. “We are stuck in a position where we have to prioritize our limited vaccine doses based on medical fact and not political want.”

More Vaccines Needed

Currently, the state is receiving a limited supply of vaccines from the federal government, approximately 100,000 doses coming in per week.

Murphy said officials only have one goal when it comes to administering: to save every life possible through facts and science.

“Let’s not fall down a rabbit hole of breaking people down in categories of job A versus job B and who is more politically favorable to vaccinate,” said the governor. “The correct comparison is: Are you more vulnerable to a severe case of this virus or are you not more vulnerable?”

He added, “What we need to end this divisive and unproductive debate is an increase in our vaccine supply. For that, we need a federal administration that will unleash the process to meet demand.”

Daily Data

On Jan. 15,  the cumulative number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey reached 555,299 with 5,490 total new PCR cases reported. There were 1,042 probable cases, bringing the cumulative total of antigen tests to 60,791. The total number of individual cases for the state is 616,090. Gov. Murphy noted there is some unknown overlap due to health officials urging those taking a rapid test to get a PCR test.

As for those that have passed, the state reported 66 new deaths, bringing that total to 18,321. The state listed probable deaths at 2,091, bringing the overall total to 20,418. State officials noted 65 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.  

For North Jersey counties, Bergen had a total of 487 new confirmed cases and 113 probable cases, Essex 543 new cases and 66 probable cases, Hudson 380 new cases and 63 probable cases, Morris 335 new cases and and 45 probable cases, Passaic 266 new cases and and 46 probable cases, Sussex 137 new cases and 17 probable cases, and Warren 56 cases and 20 probable cases.

Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 2,214, followed by Bergen at 2,139, Hudson with 1,609, Passaic at 1,375, Morris at 822, Sussex at 187 and Warren County at 175.

In regards to probable deaths, Bergen has 267, Essex has 257, Hudson has 170, Morris at 194, Passaic at 159, Sussex has 51 and Warren has 14.

State Testing 

The daily rate of infections from those tested as of Jan. 11, was 9.6%; by region, the rate was 9.3% in the North, 9.9% in the Central region and 10.1% in the South. The state is no longer using serology tests as health officials explained those results show a past presence of the disease as well as a current one. 

As for the rate of transmission, it increased to 1.11 from 1.10 the day before. Officials have continually cited transmission rate and positivity rate as health data they rely on to track how the coronavirus is being contained in New Jersey, guiding them in determining when restrictions have to be tightened or lifted.

Officials reported 3,543 patients were hospitalized with 3,313 cases confirmed and 230 under investigation. By region, there were 1,465 in the North, 1,146 in the Central and 932 in the South.

Of those hospitalized, 626 are in intensive care units and 438 on ventilators. While 452 patients were discharged, 427 were admitted.

Bergen Tops County Count

Bergen has the most confirmed cumulative cases in the state with 53,764, followed by Essex at 53,714, Middlesex at 52,772, Hudson at 50,645, Passaic at 43,632, Union at 40,988, Ocean at 38,856, Monmouth at 38,809, Camden at 33,150, Burlington at 25,197, Morris at 23,951, Mercer at 21,330, Gloucester at 16,936, Atlantic at 14,784, Somerset at 14,614, Cumberland at 9,357, Sussex at 5,815, Warren at 4,761, Hunterdon at 4,663, Salem at 3,450, and Cape May at 2,813. 

In regards to probable cases, Bergen had the most at 5,920,followed by Union at 5,728, Essex at 4,396, Ocean at 4,373,Hudson at 4,045,Morris at 3,714, Atlantic at 3,593, Middlesex at 3,550, Passaic at 3,503,Monmouth at 3,489, Somerset at 3,103, Camden at 3,093,Cape May at 2,582,Burlington at 2,593, Gloucester at 2,171, Cumberland at 1,704, Mercer at 1,102, Sussex at 737, Warren at 509, Hunterdon at 460, and Salem 368.

Another 1,298 cases are still under investigation to determine where the person resides.

In regards to cases related to in-school transmissions, a total of 111 outbreaks involving 564 cases have been reported in 20 of the 21 counties in the Garden State, with no outbreaks in the last week. 

For North Jersey, Bergen County has 22 confirmed outbreaks with 102 cases, Passaic County has five confirmed outbreaks with 25 cases, Sussex has five confirmed outbreaks with 13 cases, Warren has four confirmed outbreaks with nine cases, Hudson County has two confirmed outbreaks with 10 cases and  Essex County with one confirmed outbreak with 83 cases. Morris is the only county in the state without an outbreak.

Long-term Care Facilities

Health officials noted 426 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 14,170 of the cases, broken down between 6,802 residents and 7,368 staff. 

Cumulatively, 1,196 long-term care facilities reported a case infecting 31,298 residents and 20,493 staff, for a total of 51,791 cases. 

The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 7,644 on Jan. 15. The facilities are reporting to the state 7,551 residents deaths and 140 staff deaths.

Vaccine Distribution

The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in New Jersey totaled 310,595 as of Jan. 15. Of those who have received the vaccine, 273,335 residents have received their first dose with 37,079 their second; 54% have been administered the Moderna vaccine and 476% the Pfizer. Demographically, 63% of those vaccinated are women and 37% men. As for ethnicity, 47% are White, 21% unknown, 18% other, 6% Asian, 5% Hispanic and 4% Black. 

In North Jersey, Bergen County has delivered 34,325 doses, Essex 25,037 doses, Hudson 11,033 doses, Morris 22,675 doses, Passaic 14,294 doses, Sussex 5,248 doses, and Warren 3,227 doses. 


  1. As a die-hard Democrat, who would never consider voting for a Republican, I must say I’m shocked and appalled at the idea of putting smokers ahead of educators and other front line workers for the vaccine. If I had one of each in my family, I’d vaccinate the front line worker first in a heartbeat … Anime other things, in general they have more to do with getting this economy going again, but to mention the people they interact with. And, they didn’t choose to start smoking….

  2. Smokers are NOT put ahead of most essential workers (teachers, grocery workers, etc.), elderly, those with chronic health conditions. Read the article, and you will see exactly what the policy is. They are simply on the same plane as these other categories, and that is because they will be more likely to end up in the ICU, which harms everyone, if they get COVID-19.

  3. Mixed feeling on this; long-term smokers with definite vulnerability should be in the mix, but not someone who just took up the habit or worse, does so only to jump the line. Not sure ow to accomplish that—medical note?

  4. There’s consequences to the much publicized folly of smoking. No jumping in front of non-smokers for these people. It’s laughable that they should be getting that privilege.

    1. Those who think not vaccinating smokers somehow punishes them rather than being a smart public health policy move simply don’t understand public health policy issues. Preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with very sick ICU patients protects healthcare workers and others who need to use hospital services for non-COVID and COVID-related care.
      It’s very tempting to want to punish those who don’t display personal responsibility, but that is simply shooting ourselves in the foot.

      1. Agreed; I was feeling sort-of negative about including smokers, but I do understand Howard’s point and am convinced. Thanks!

      2. Well, on a purely emotional level, I’m not thrilled about smokers receiving the vaccine, but it’s the right policy. Policy should be based on rational thought, not on pure emotions, however legitimate.

  5. Bergen is “shocked” by this, but says nothing about the four-month delay by the White House in dealing with covid, passing the buck to the states, continued lies, and, finally, Azar telling the country there are NO reserves of covid vaccine to administer to its citizens, so we run out?

    If you complain about only this, you are totally blind to the derelictions of your party to public health in general and its malign neglect of the poor, the elderly, people of color, LGBTQ people, and whomever else it demonizes.

    You appear like those who blamed the Jews for the Final Solution in 1934-44.


  7. What a great way to promote smoking!! Are they getting a cut from the tobacco companies? If we take up smoking, we can move ahead in the vaccination line!

    1. Pretty sure I read that you don’t have to show proof that you’re a smoker. But HowardF says it all.

      1. I’m 90 my wife is 82. If we get it there is zero percent chance we could survive. We registered with the belief that we’d be called when it became our turn. Instead, it’s a free for all with not enough vaccine the way it was and now, under these new rules it’s who has the connections or the computer savvy to get vaccinated. I have never voted for a Republican, but Gov. Phil is bringing me around!

        At our age it is no longer possible to say, “So it’ll be another year”. The days dwindle down to a precious few……We’ve been “locked down” in our house since last March. Haven’t sent out for a pizza….our groceries are delivered (not easy to do) and we wash each item before it comes into the house. Service on both the cars and the house have fallen by the wayside…and they need taking care of.

        We are badly in need of governmental management that is not being exercised.

      2. I feel your pain, Jerry. We care for my 93 year old mother-in-law, with whom we live, and I have COPD.
        Please don’t put all of this on our governor. Remember that he’s been handicapped by a federal response that has failed to provide adequate resources for states, especially blue ones like NJ. This, too, will soon change. It won’t be another year before you get the vaccine, but I can advise you to not simply rely on registering for vaccination, and to phone the nearest centers to get an appointment.

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