Pennsylvania followed the federal government’s lead when including smoking among the serious medical conditions that would currently qualify someone for a COVID-19 vaccination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes smoking in its category of increased risk of severe illness or death for persons with specific medical conditions. The category includes cancer, chronic kidney disease, pregnancy and Down syndrome.
Cindy Findley, who leads Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said during a media briefing Tuesday that the commonwealth was aligned with the federal government’s vaccination plans.
An estimated 2.17 million adult Pennsylvanians were identified as smokers in 2018, according to the CDC.
“Public health experts agree smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. To mitigate these increased risks, Pennsylvania has chosen to follow the CDC’s recommendations and include smoking among the list of medical conditions putting individuals at greater risk,” Barry Ciccocioppo, COVID press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said.
Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary, Department of Health, said that none of the pre-existing medical conditions should be prioritized over another. Joseph Stender, a spokesman with Geisinger, said the hospital system takes the same stance.
This week, Pennsylvania expanded Phase 1A of its distribution plan to allow anyone age 65 or older to schedule a vaccine. Pregnant women are also now eligible along with people between the ages of 16 to 64 who have serious medical conditions such as cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, smoking and sickle cell disease. The expansion raised the Commonwealth’s pool of eligible persons to 3.5 million people.
A full list of eligible persons by category is available at www.health.pa.gov. There’s also a link for people to take a short quiz to determine eligibility along with an interactive map that shows which providers currently participate in the vaccination program.
A newly launched local effort, Greater Susquehanna Valley COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, launched a website this week at vaccine-gsv.org that hosts information about the vaccine, eligibility and local vaccine providers.
Studies vary on the connections between smoking and increased risk of severe illness caused by COVID-19, in part, because the disease is new and evolving. Given the known health risks of smoking, cessation is recommended across the board even as research continues on the virus connection.
UCLA researchers found that the virus blocked “the activity of immune system messenger proteins called interferons.”
“Interferons play a critical role in the body's early immune response by triggering infected cells to produce proteins to attack the virus, summoning additional support from the immune system, and alerting uninfected cells to prepare to fight the virus. Cigarette smoke is known to reduce the interferon response in the airways,” according to a university press release from November.
Lung disease expert Panagis Galiatsatos at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center said in a Q&A published that same month at www.hopkinsmedicine.org said the relationship between smoking and the coronavirus is still unclear. What is clear, however, is that smoking is a “proves risk factor” for cardiovascular and lung diseases which can increase risk of a severe case of COVID-19, Galiatsatos said.
“We are seeing worse cases of COVID-19 in smokers,” Galiatsatos said. “Your lungs, which are at the forefront of your immune system, are interacting with the environment with every breath.”