New York / Indianapolis | US health authorities, shipping services and hospitals stood ready on Friday to immediately launch a mass-inoculation campaign of unparalleled dimension, as federal regulators granted emergency approval to the first COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.
Moving with unprecedented speed, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday approved emergency use of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech.
Last-minute preparations for the vaccine rollout came as the US death toll from the coronavirus pandemic approached 300,000 to date, capping weeks of ominously surging infections and hospitalisation that have strained healthcare systems to their limits.
Another 2902 US deaths were reported on Thursday, a day after a record 3253, a pace projected to continue over the next two to three months even as distribution of available vaccine supplies ramps up.
The first shots are expected to be administered within days, spearheading an effort widely seen as pivotal in ultimately vanquishing a pandemic that has upended daily life in the United States and devastated its economy. President Donald Trump said on Friday night that vaccinations would begin in less than 24 hours.
Trump has drawn criticism for largely ignoring the pandemic as it escalated throughout the country, choosing instead to repeatedly downplay the virus and focusing on his bid to overturn his election loss.
Britain, Bahrain, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico have already approved the Pfizer vaccine, and the US advisory panel is due to review a second vaccine, from Moderna, next week.
Other vaccine candidates are in the works as the United States gears up for a campaign evocative of the polio inoculations for children during the 1950s and 1960s.
Delivery companies United Parcel Service and FedEx stood ready to ship millions of doses across the country, giving top priority to the vaccines over other packages on their airplanes and trucks.
Plans call for US marshals to provide security for vaccine shipments from manufacturing facilities to distribution sites, including acting as escorts for delivery trucks.
New York City officials announced plans to open a vaccine command centre across the street from City Hall on Monday to coordinate distribution throughout the nation's largest city. Particular attention will be paid to 27 hard-hit neighbourhoods largely populated by ethnic minorities, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
"This is unprecedented because it's not just about logistics, it's about making sure we win public trust, it's about ensuring equity," de Blasio told a news briefing.
New York state expects to receive 346,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine the week of December 21, on top of the 170,000 Pfizer doses coming this weekend, Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference.
Healthcare workers and elderly people in long-term care facilities are expected to be the main recipients of a first round of 2.9 million shots this month, with initial limitations on supplies meaning most of the general public will have to wait months for the vaccines to become widely available.
The Indiana University Health centre, one of the first hospitals designated to administer the vaccine, rehearsed its vaccination procedures on Friday, with pharmacists, nurses and doctors taking part in drills for storing, transporting and giving actual shots to patients.
"We want to make sure that we are perfectly ready and open with a bang," Kristen Kelley, director of infection prevention at IU Health, told Reuters.
Elsewhere, many healthcare workers were struggling just to keep up with a staggering caseload while facing shortages of staff and personal protective equipment (PPE), including surgical gloves, gowns and rapid diagnostic test kits.
"We don't have nearly enough. They're not readily available, they take too long, and the supply chain isn't working consistently," Konnie Martin, chief executive officer for San Luis Valley Health, which runs the Regional Medical Centre in Alamosa, Colorado.
The Alamosa hospital serves six mostly rural counties in southern Colorado that are home to some 50,000 residents.
The US rollout faces significant logistical challenges to meet President-elect Joe Biden's goal of inoculating 100 million people - about a third of the US population - within 100 days of his inauguration on Jan. 20.
But any American who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by May or June, Assistant US Health Secretary Brett Giroir told Fox News on Friday.
Still, there is cause for concern about Americans' scepticism of vaccines, with only 61 per cent saying they are open to getting inoculated, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
In the meantime, grim statistics continue to pile up as more than 200,000 US cases per day were recorded for four straight days, with another 220,815 cases on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally of official data.
The United States has reported about 15.6 million known infections as of Thursday.
State and local leaders have imposed a raft of constraints on social and economic life in recent weeks to slow the contagion, even as many Americans disregarded urgent pleas to limit travel, refrain from unnecessary gatherings and wear masks in public.
Cuomo announced that indoor restaurant dining in New York City, which resumed just over two months ago, will cease beginning Monday.
Compliance with such COVID-related shutdowns has proved to be far from uniform.
A California youth basketball program whose leaders ignored restrictions on sports practices and games was found to be the source of a COVID-19 outbreak linked to at least 94 infections among players, coaches and others, public health officials in Santa Clara County near San Francisco said Friday.
US COVID-related deaths are projected to surpass 500,00 by April 1, according to an influential model by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.