By Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter
An intensive care unit nurse became the first person in the United States to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on Monday, calling it a sign that "healing is coming," as the US coronavirus death toll crossed a staggering 300,000 lives lost.
Sandra Lindsay, who has treated some of the sickest Covid-19 patients for months, was given the vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New York City borough of Queens, an early epicentre of the country's Covid-19 outbreak, receiving applause on a livestream with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
"It didn't feel any different from taking any other vaccine," Lindsay said.
"I feel hopeful today, relieved. I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.
"I want to instil public confidence that the vaccine is safe," she added.
Cuomo tweeted a picture of Lindsay, wearing a mask and staring resolutely ahead, as a doctor injected her in the arm, and said she was the first American to get vaccinated.
"This is what heroes look like," Cuomo wrote.
Minutes after Lindsay received the injection, President Donald Trump tweeted: "First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!"
Long Island Jewish Medical Center, operated by New York's largest healthcare system, Northwell Health, was one of many select hospitals across the US that was administering the country's first inoculations of a Covid-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials on Monday.
The vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE, won an emergency use authorisation from federal regulators on Friday after it was found to be 95 percent effective in preventing illness in a large clinical trial.
Its arrival provided some welcome relief as the country passed the grim milestone of 300,000 lives lost on Monday, with Covid-19 hospitalizations at record levels. More than 16 million US coronavirus cases have been recorded to date.
The United States is reporting 2462 deaths per day on a seven-day average, the highest since the pandemic started, according to a Reuters count.
The first 2.9 million doses of the vaccine began to be shipped to distribution centres around the country on Sunday, just 11 months after the United States documented its first case of Covid-19.
"It's been an incredible morning. It's historic," Dr Leonardo Seoane said speaking over a livestream video on Monday after becoming one of the first Louisiana residents to receive the vaccine at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, where he led some of the clinical trials for the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.
The first US vaccine shipments departed from Pfizer's facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sunday, packed into trucks with dry-ice to maintain the necessary -70 Celsius temperature.
They were transported to UPS and FedEx planes waiting at airfields in Lansing and Grand Rapids and flown to cargo hubs in Louisville and Memphis, kicking off a national immunisation endeavour of unprecedented complexity.
From Kentucky and Tennessee, the shipments were loaded onto planes and trucks to be distributed to the first 145 of 636 vaccine-staging areas across the country. Second and third waves of vaccine shipments were due to go out to the remaining sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"This is the most difficult vaccine rollout in history," US Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News on Monday.
"There will be hiccups undoubtedly, but we've done everything from a federal level and working with partners to make it go as smoothly as possible," Adams said, adding he would get the shot as soon as he could.
Governors in 26 states and territories were planning to use the National Guard to assist with vaccine distribution, ranging from breaking down shipments into smaller packages to helping with transport, the Guard said on Monday.
More doses on the way
Healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be first to get the two-dose vaccine regimen given three weeks apart. Next will be essential workers, as determined by individual states, and elderly people with underlying health conditions.
US top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci told MSNBC on Monday that Americans with no heightened risk factors could expect to get vaccinated "by the end of March, the beginning of April".
"Maybe by the end of late spring ... so that by the time we get into the fall, we can start approaching some degree of relief," Fauci said.
Health officials have warned that masks and social distancing will still be needed for months to control the rampaging outbreak.
US Operation Warp Speed top adviser Moncef Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses - enough for 20 million people - distributed by the end of this month.
That would include vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. An outside US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to consider the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, with emergency use expected to be granted shortly after.
On Friday, Moderna announced it had struck a deal with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million additional doses in the second quarter.
Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla told CNN on Monday that the company plans on producing 1.3 billion doses next year and is working to increase that number to meet high demand, including a request by the US government for 100 million more doses by the second quarter of 2021 still being negotiated. That is in addition to the 100 million expected by the end of the first quarter.