Hope in the darkest hour
Today an array of frontline health care workers received the first doses of a mass vaccination campaign that could bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
A nurse from an intensive care unit in New York, an emergency room doctor from Ohio and a hospital housekeeper in Iowa were among the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The most hopeful moment since the pandemic began also comes at its bleakest time, as the U.S. death toll tops 300,000 and the nation averages more than 2,400 deaths a day. Even as applause rang out at hospitals, many intensive care units remained near capacity.
“I have seen the alternative, and do not want it for you,” said Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, the first known person to receive the vaccine in the U.S. since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. “I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.”
“African-Americans have suffered quite the repercussions of Covid-19,” said Dr. Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, 42, an emergency physician at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who is Black and was among the first people to be vaccinated. “I wanted to share with my community that it is OK, that this vaccine is the thing to do to keep us safe, to keep us healthy and to keep us alive.”
The first three million doses of the vaccine, which must be kept at ultracold temperatures, are being distributed by trucks and cargo planes to hospitals in all 50 states. According to Gen. Gustave F. Perna, the chief operating officer of the federal effort to develop a vaccine, 145 sites were set to receive the vaccine on Monday, 425 on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday.
Residents of nursing homes, who have suffered a disproportionate share of Covid-19 deaths, are expected to begin receiving vaccinations next week. But the vast majority of Americans will not be eligible for the vaccine until the spring or later.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the average person with no underlying conditions would get the vaccine by the end of March or beginning of April, with most people vaccinated by late spring or early summer. Until then, social distancing and masks will remain crucial.
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.
“It was so close,” Ms. Smith told our colleague Julie Bosman.
In other vaccine news:
President Trump rescinded a plan to have senior White House staffers receive some of the first doses.
Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about coronavirus vaccines.
The Wall Street Journal has a rundown of the complicated supply chain that must deliver vaccine doses, dry ice, ultracold freezers and other medical supplies at precisely the right moment.
Another lockdown in Germany
Germans will be forced into a strict lockdown over Christmas after weeks of milder restrictions failed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading through the country, leading to record numbers of new infections and deaths.
“The ‘lockdown light’ had an effect, but it was not enough,” said Markus Söder, the governor of Bavaria, referring to the partial restrictions that have been in place since early November.
On Wednesday, as part of the new order, the country will shutter nonessential stores and restrict private gatherings. And, most notably, it will close its schools.
This fall, even as cases surged across Europe, Germany worked hard to keep schools open, prioritizing in-person learning over restaurants and bars. But even in a country once seen as a success story, that strategy is no longer viable.
“It sends the message that Germany lost control of the pandemic entirely,” said Melissa Eddy, a Times correspondent in Berlin. “The schools got sacrificed because they failed to lock down everything else strictly enough.”
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, initially took an aggressive, science-first approach to containment. But pandemic fatigue, complacency and political squabbling allowed the virus to tighten its grip. Now, infections and fatalities continue to climb among older people, especially those in nursing homes, and health experts worry that more cases could overwhelm the health system.
During the Christmas lockdown, the government will compensate affected businesses and freelancers for up to 90 percent of fixed costs, or up to 500,000 euros, equivalent to $605,000.
“The faster we bring down the numbers of new infections, the faster our economy will be able to recover,” said Peter Altmaier, the economic minister.
In South Korea, schools in the Seoul metropolitan area will move online Tuesday until the end of 2020.
The Netherlands will lock down for at least five weeks. Schools, shops, gyms, cinemas and more will stay closed until mid-January.
In London, theaters will close Wednesday, just days after most reopened. Museums will, too, and pubs and restaurants can only offer takeout.
What else we’re following
In obituaries for people who have died of the coronavirus, families have started to write warnings alongside personal details. “This disease is real, it is serious and it is deadly,” Kim Miller wrote in her husband’s obituary. “Wear the mask, socially distance, if not for yourself then for others who may lose a loved one to the disease.”
Australia and New Zealand plan to join together in a travel bubble next year, which would allow people to travel freely between the two countries without needing to quarantine for two weeks on arrival. The planned move is a clear marker of both countries’ success in suppressing the virus.
Political infighting, haphazard planning and a rising anti-vaccine movement have turned Brazil into a cautionary tale.
Major airlines, including United, JetBlue and Lufthansa, plan to introduce a health passport app that will verify passengers’ coronavirus test results and, perhaps soon, their vaccination status.
Restaurants in New York City are laying off workers as a new ban on indoor dining begins. The Times’s restaurant critic Pete Wells called it “one more kick at the tail end of a year when everyone and everything seemed to conspire against them.”
Businesses now face a new ethical dilemma: Should they mandate vaccines?
Ambrose Dlamini, the prime minister of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), died of Covid-19 on Sunday. He was 52.
Some pregnant people who have contracted the coronavirus experienced fear, shame and unhealthy levels of stress. “As a mom, I felt a lot of guilt,” said Kate Glaser, who tested positive right before she gave birth. “What did I do wrong?”
What you’re doing
Since the virus is keeping our extended family apart during the holidays, one of my brothers started his own version of an Advent calendar. Every morning he sends a Christmas photo from a collection that spans at least 70 years. The recipients are encouraged to add our recollections and other photos. So many happy memories and a wonderful way to start the day.
— Ellen Sculley, Bradenton, Fla.
Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.