The U.S. began vaccinating people against COVID-19 Monday, a sign of hope that the pandemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and sickened millions more, will soon come to an end.
The first vaccinations outside clinical trials represent a key victory in the fight against COVID-19, almost a year after the virus first arrived in the country and began its attack on American lives and the economy.
Still, the good news Monday is soon to be dampened by another milestone: 300,000 dead of COVID-19, with the numbers of fatalities increasing every day as the country enters the darkest days of the pandemic.
“Our war against the virus is not over yet but this week we’re taking a major step toward our eventual victory,” Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told reporters during a briefing Monday.
A New York critical care nurse was thought to be the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial Monday.
States have generally prioritized health care workers and nursing home residents and front-line workers for the first doses.
“I believe this is the weapon that will end the war,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), as he watched nurse Sandra Lindsay receive the COVID-19 vaccination at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens.
“It’s the beginning of the last chapter of the book.”
Other states, including Connecticut, Iowa and Washington, are also expected to give the first doses of the vaccine Monday.
“This week, everyone’s work starts to pay off,” Azar said.
Nearly 3 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine were sent out to all states and territories, with allocations based on population size, just hours after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its authorization Friday night.
Another 3 million doses will be sent in 21 days for people who have already been vaccinated to receive their second doses.
The FDA could authorize a Moderna vaccine as early as this week, and it could be shipped out to states next week, a Trump administration official said Monday.
Azar said Monday that the U.S. has purchased enough vaccines to inoculate every willing American by the end of the second quarter of 2021. That figure assumes that vaccine candidates from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca will be authorized by the FDA in the coming months.
Still, experts and public health officials have stressed that a new vaccine does not mean people should ease up on measures intended to slow the spread of the virus.
“A vaccine right now is not a substitute for the normal standard public health measures of wearing a mask, keeping your distance, avoiding congregate, crowded sections, particularly indoors,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, said Monday on MSNBC.
The U.S. is confirming an average of 210,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, and experts predict the pandemic will worsen over the holidays when people gather with family and friends against public health advice.
Even with vaccinations beginning across the country Monday, the limited number of initial doses means life is unlikely to return to some sense of normalcy until summer or fall of 2021 or even later, depending on which vaccines get approved and if drug companies meet their production goals.
Operation Warp Speed officials said Monday there should be enough vaccines to give 20 million people their first doses by the end of December, and another 30 million people could receive their first doses by the end of January.
By the end of March, at least 100 million people will have received their first doses, Azar said.
Vaccinations could be available for the general public by the beginning of March or the beginning of April. But it will still take several months to build up the level of immunity among a population of 330 million people.