A ‘magical’ moment: First COVID-19 vaccinations raise hopes on historic day marked by another grim milestone

Jorge L. Ortiz

Elizabeth Weise
 
| USA TODAY

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Azar: COVID vaccine ‘critical milestone towards the ultimate defeat’

Health care workers were among the first to get COVID-19 shots across the nation as the biggest vaccination campaign in American history began.

On a day when Joe Biden’s presidential victory was confirmed and the U.S. reached 300,000 deaths from COVID-19, the first vaccinations against the coronavirus Monday drew comparisons to the moon landing.

That lent perspective to the historic magnitude of a medical achievement that might finally begin to restrain a runaway pandemic that has claimed more than 1.6 million lives globally. More than 72 million have been infected.

Health care workers across the U.S. were the first to receive a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was granted emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday and got clearance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday. Britain was the first Western country to implement mass inoculations last week.

After a nurse at Tampa General Hospital received the first coronavirus shot in the state, Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida College of Medicine, drew a parallel to watching American astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first human to step on the moon in 1969.

“This is our magical Neil Armstrong moment,’’ Lockwood said.

The vaccine has shown 95% effectiveness in clinical trials and was developed in less than a year, a fraction of the time it would usually take as researchers worldwide frantically sought an antidote to a virus discovered in China in December 2019.

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Sandra Lindsay, a critical-care nurse in hard-hit New York City who was likely the first American to get the vaccine, said she wanted to “instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe’’ despite being developed in record time.

“I hope this marks the beginning to the end of a very painful time in our history,’’ Lindsay said.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s $10 billion effort to accelerate the production and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, will ship 2.9 million doses this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. Another 2.9 million doses have been held back and set to go out in time for the first people who were vaccinated to receive their second dose 21 days later.

A two-shot vaccine produced by the Massachusetts firm Moderna could get FDA approval this week – it’s scheduled for review Thursday – adding to the country’s stockpile, which is expected to total 40 million doses by the end of the year. The majority of those are reserved for health care workers and residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which have accounted for nearly 40% of COVID-19 deaths.

Vaccine candidates from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are also in the pipeline, though they’re not as advanced as the first two and likely wouldn’t be authorized for immunizations before February.

A total of 145 sites were to receive the Pfizer vaccine Monday, 425 on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday, Azar said. Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed’s science adviser, said 20 million people will have been able to get a first dose by the end of December, and Azar said another 30 million should get it by the end of January.

North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island were among the states reporting coronavirus vaccinations Monday.

In Louisiana, Dr. Leo Seoane of the Ochsner’s New Orleans Medical Center said that as an immigrant and a Cuban American, it was particularly meaningful for him to be among the first immunized.

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“It’s really an honor and a privilege to be part of the solution for something that we know has been so impactful for the Hispanic community,” Seoane said.

In Florida, Danielle Parker, a registered nurse in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at UF Health Jacksonville since the beginning of the pandemic, broke into tears after getting her shot as she pondered all the suffering she had witnessed over the past months.

In Indiana, a doctor, nurse, respiratory therapist, pharmacist, patient care tech and environmental services tech in Fort Wayne were the state’s first recipients of the vaccine.

In Tennessee, officials said the first vaccine shipments won’t arrive at hospitals until Thursday, putting the state behind others in the race to protect its residents.

But north of the state border in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear watched in person as Dr. Jason Smith, chief medical officer and a trauma surgeon at University of Louisville Health, received the state’s first dose.

“I fully believe this is a safe and effective vaccine,” Smith said. “I volunteered to go first because of that.”

Slaoui, the science adviser, emphasized the importance of Americans listening to scientific and medical experts as they explain the data showing the safety and efficacy of the vaccines rather than allowing themselves to be guided by misinformation.

In a recent Gallup poll, 63% of respondents said they would get the vaccine. The figure had hovered around the 50% mark but has risen lately.

“Vaccines on the shelf are useless,” Slaoui said. “Unless the majority of us get vaccinated, we will not be able to control this pandemic.’’

In the meantime, Azar urged Americans to continue to socially distance and wear masks.

“Every sacrifice you make in the coming months will help save lives and ensure that we emerge from this pandemic as soon as possible,’’ Azar said.

“Each vaccine administered in these coming days is a tribute to the generosity and genius of this country. The achievements that every American who made Operation Warp Speed possible should be a point of pride for us all.

“Our war against the virus is not over yet, but this week we’re taking a major step.”

Contributing: Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat; Beth Reese Cravey and Matt Soergel, Florida Times-Union; Andrew Capps, Lafayette Daily Advertiser; Deborah Yetter, Louisville Courier Journal; Shari Rudavsky, Indianapolis Star; Brett Kelman, Nashville Tennessean

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