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Start of vaccinations across US brings hope as COVID-19 death toll soars

David Conway, an emergency medicine nurse, was the first staff member to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City on Monday.
David Conway, an emergency medicine nurse, was the first staff member to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City on Monday.KATHRYN GAMBLE/NYT

PITTSBURGH — Some of the very medical centers that have endured the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States found the gloom that has long filled their corridors replaced by elation and hope Monday as health care workers became the first to take part in a mass vaccination campaign aimed at ending the pandemic.

Hundreds of those who have been on the front lines of fighting COVID-19 — a nurse from an intensive care unit in New York, an emergency room doctor from Ohio, a hospital housekeeper in Iowa — received inoculations in emotional ceremonies watched by people around the country.

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“I feel like healing is coming,” said Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse who was among the first health care workers to be vaccinated Monday morning, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, an early center of the virus.

But the vaccinations came as the nation surpassed 300,000 coronavirus deaths, a toll larger than any other country. Even as applause rang out at hospitals nationwide, many intensive care units remained near capacity and public health experts warned that life would not return to normal until well into next year.

Plunking down in wooden chairs and rolling up their sleeves were physicians, nurses, aides, cleaners and at least one chief executive who said he was getting the vaccine early to encourage everyone on his staff to do the same.

Dr. Jason Smith, the first Kentuckian to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, showed off the smiley-face Band-Aid a health care worker applied to his arm. “Didn’t even feel it,” he said. A group of nuns in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, blessed the vaccine as it arrived, before it was whisked into a freezer.

Seth Jackson, a nurse in Iowa, found himself crying on the way to the hospital to get his shot. Robin Mercier, a Rhode Island nurse, rejoiced in feeling one step closer to being able to kiss her grandchild.

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“This is the marking of getting back to normal,” said Angela Mattingly, a housekeeper at the University of Iowa Hospital, who was fifth in line as shots were dispensed on the 12th floor.

One of those who had spent months studying the safety of the vaccine was herself vaccinated.

“This is the culmination of a lot of hard work in our clinical trials,’’ said Dr. Patricia Winokur, 61, the principal investigator of the clinical trial of the vaccine and a professor at the University of Iowa. “Our team has worked hard, and I am so proud to have been a part of it.”

Near the White House, five health workers at George Washington University Hospital were given shots at a national kickoff event staged by the Department of Health and Human Services. Alex Azar, the health secretary, said that the vaccinations in Washington were “representative of what’s happening across America right now,” adding that he would visit other vaccination sites in the coming weeks.

The first vaccinations come at the bleakest moment of the pandemic in the United States. The country is averaging more than 2,400 deaths a day, even more than in the spring. More than twice as many deaths are being announced each day than just a month ago.

Reports of new cases and hospitalizations have also reached records in recent days. Even as infection numbers have started falling in parts of the Midwest and the Mountain West, some of the country’s largest population centers are worsening rapidly.

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California recently became the first state to announce more than 30,000 cases in a day. New York is averaging nearly five times as many cases statewide as it was at the beginning of November. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia were among 12 states that set weekly case records Sunday.

For many Americans who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, news of the vaccination rollout was bittersweet. It did not come soon enough for Mary Smith’s husband, Mike, who died from the virus in November at the age of 64 after rapidly becoming fatigued, short of breath and feverish.

“It was so close,” Smith, who lives outside Peoria, Illinois, said Monday.

She voiced frustration with people who said they did not trust the vaccine. An Associated Press poll, released last week, found that half of Americans were ready to take a vaccine, a percentage that public health experts said could jeopardize its benefits.

“These people who say, ‘I’m not getting it,’ all I can say is, ‘Why? Have you lost your mind?’” Smith added. “Have you not seen how many people have died? This is real.’”

Lindsay, the nurse from Long Island Jewish Medical Center, who is Black, volunteered to be among the first New Yorkers to be vaccinated, saying that she wanted to encourage people skeptical of vaccines to get a shot, and particularly Black Americans, who have died from the virus at disproportionate rates.

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“I’ve been waiting for this day not only for myself, but to show people it’s safe,” Lindsay, the director of critical care nursing, said. “I want people who look like me and are associated with me to know it’s safe.”

About 600 sites — many of them hospitals — were scheduled to receive the first of nearly 3 million doses of the vaccine this week. Some 500,000 doses were delivered Monday to 142 of the sites around the country. The rollout, starting with high-risk health care workers and nursing home residents, is a monumental logistical challenge, and there so far is no uniform approach to publicly reporting where vaccines have been received and how many doses have been administered.

Puerto Rico’s efforts to vaccinate the public hit a logistical snag Monday, when the government received half the expected doses.

Several states and hospital systems announced that they had received initial shipments or started giving shots Monday, though usually without much numerical detail. Other states provided more specifics, including Alaska, where 35,100 doses landed on a UPS plane, and Mississippi, where 25,000 doses were spread across several facilities.

By day’s end, it was unclear exactly how many Americans had received an initial dose of the approved vaccine, made by Pfizer-BioNTech.

Another vaccine, made by biotech company Moderna, is likely to receive emergency authorization Friday. The shipping of 6 million doses to 3,285 U.S. locations would start on the weekend, officials said, with the first vaccinations taking place by next Monday.

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The available supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is not enough to inoculate all of the doctors, nurses, security guards, receptionists and other workers at risk of daily exposure to the virus, forcing hospitals to decide whom to give priority.

There was no single method. The group in Washington was selected by an algorithm based on a survey of hospital employees that asked about age and underlying medical conditions. At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an advisory group devised an order that took into consideration prevention of transmission and underlying conditions, as well as the hospital’s ability to continue its own operations, said Dr. Graham Snyder, its medical director of infection prevention.

The Pittsburgh hospital received 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Monday, and would be giving a necessary second shot to the first wave of recipients in the coming weeks. Snyder believed that the medical center’s entire workforce — there are about 60,000 front-line health care workers in the network — could be vaccinated within a couple of months.

For all it portended at the end of a year of misery and death, the operation was surprisingly mundane. A little trickle of blood here and there, followed by small talk and cotton swabs, and it was done.

At a news conference, some of the recipients discussed the thinking and procedures that led to them being among the first vaccine recipients in the city.

Tami Minnier, a nurse and the chief quality officer at the medical center, likened the moment to the development of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk in the 1950s. “And we all know the benefit that humanity has seen from that,” she said.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrival of vaccines to the state from Tampa General Hospital at 11 a.m., about an hour after the shipment of the first batch had reached the facility. Moments later, Vanessa Arroyo, a 31-year-old nurse from Tampa General’s COVID-19 unit, got the hospital’s first vaccine. Arroyo, who wore a mask, sat in front of the cameras while Rafael Martinez, another nurse, administered the shot to her left arm.

“Yay!” DeSantis said, as the room burst into applause.

Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida medical school, who was in attendance, called the inoculation a “magic moment” and compared it to watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

The bulk of inoculations went to medical workers Monday, but they were not the only ones. Christopher Miller, the acting defense secretary, received the coronavirus vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In Bedford, Massachusetts, a World War II veteran became the first patient at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The veteran, Margaret Klessens, who is 96 and a resident of the Veterans Affairs Bedford Healthcare System, was vaccinated just after noon, according to the hospital’s Twitter account.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will be distributing vaccines at 37 locations across the country, prioritizing residents of long-term care facilities and health care workers.

In Fargo, North Dakota, a state devastated by the virus, the Sanford Health hospital’s pharmacy staff carried out an elaborate plan Monday morning even before vaccines could start: They unpacked their first shipment of vaccines, which arrived at 7:02 a.m., and rushed them into an ultracold freezer — a delicate, carefully timed operation that needed to happen in less than 5 minutes to ensure the vaccine would stay at the low temperatures needed to ensure its effectiveness.

Monte Roemmich, the hospital’s pharmacy manager, pried open the box and checked a temperature sensor to ensure the vaccine had stayed sufficiently chilly on its daylong journey from the Pfizer plant in western Michigan to North Dakota.

He slipped on a pair of thick blue cold-resistant gloves and, one by one, scooted the trays into a new freezer that will keep the vaccines at some 94 degrees below zero until they are ready for use.

David Leedahl, the director of the pharmacy, clapped as Roemmich slid the just-delivered vaccines into the freezer, saying, “It’s even better than Christmas.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.