photo by Pixabay user HVesna
Significant moments in the life of a community are often celebrated with a ribbon-cutting or by turning over a shovelful of earth. But in the midst of a pandemic, celebrants wield hypodermic needles in place of scissors and spades.
Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, yesterday became the first American to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials. Her immunization was streamed live from the hospital where Lindsay works. New York City Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who attended the virtual event via video link, observed, “This is the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel.”
Lindsay joined a circle of instant celebrities, whose charter member is Margaret Keenan of the United Kingdom. Keenan, who turns 91 today, became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine outside of a trial when the U.K. rolled out its program exactly one week ago. Both Keenan and Lindsay used their respective moments in the spotlight to encourage others to take the injection as it becomes more widely available.
“I would like to thank all the front line workers, all my colleagues,” Lindsay said. “We all need to do our part to put an end to the pandemic.”
Meeting the cameras after receiving her jab, Keenan observed, “If I can have it at 90, then you can have it too,” the BBC reported.
By midday, vaccinations were underway across much of the United States and Canada, as well as in the United Kingdom. Continental Europe still awaits final clearance for the Pfizer vaccine, expected near the end of this month. By that time, a second vaccine from Moderna is likely to be approved for use on either an emergency or regular basis in the less-bureaucratic, English-speaking advanced democracies.
This ray of hope arrives as the current surge takes an appalling toll in suffering, lost lives and ruined livelihoods. Even as Cuomo applauded Lindsay’s vaccination, New York City restaurants were being forced to shut their indoor dining rooms on his orders. The industry fears it will be decimated, and it is fair to question how much Cuomo’s order can accomplish. There is little evidence that socially distanced dining rooms operating at 25% of capacity – the former limit in the five boroughs – are a major contributor to the rise in hospitalizations. The primary drivers are private gatherings in homes, social activities such as weddings and funerals, and holiday season travel and parties. These, along with a general weariness with masking and social distancing, are symptoms of what has come to be known as pandemic fatigue.
Cities as disparate as London and Los Angeles have responded to the surge by banning most private gatherings between members of different households. But announcing such a ban and being able to enforce it to the point of effectiveness are two entirely different things.
In the end, defeating the novel coronavirus is going to require a largely voluntary collaboration between government, health care providers and the general public. Ribbon-cuttings can celebrate the opening of a new supermarket or subway station, but those facilities don’t succeed unless people show up to use them.
And so it is with the newly developed vaccines. We can, and should, celebrate the remarkable achievement of their creation, testing and delivery. But vaccines will not make life better unless we take advantage of them. As Cuomo remarked after watching Lindsay take her shot, “The vaccine doesn’t work if it’s in the vial.” Now the rest of us need to get ready to show up.