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U.S. Has Begun COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Doctors and nurses and others in high-risk groups are rolling up their sleeves today as the U.S. launches a historic campaign in the war against the pandemic. A mass vaccination program has begun to try to end the unprecedented death and suffering in this country. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the latest. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so Americans are finally getting vaccinated after - what? - about nine months into the pandemic here in the U.S. Can you just catch us up on what's been happening today?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, for sure. This is a big day. I mean, it's the moment everyone has been waiting for since this terrible pandemic began. Special freezer boxes with vials of frozen vaccine are arriving at 145 sites around the country today. They contain the first of 2.9 million doses of vaccine. Here's how Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar put it during a briefing for reporters this morning.

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ALEX AZAR: Today we have hope on the way. Supplies of an FDA-authorized, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine are arriving at sites across America.

STEIN: And, you know, they're already being injected into people's arms as we speak. And it's just the beginning. Another 425 hospitals and other places will get vaccine tomorrow, 66 more on Wednesday, with millions more vaccine doses hopefully rolling out in waves in the weeks and months ahead.

CHANG: Sounds so good. All right, so who got the...

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Very, very first shots of the vaccine?

STEIN: Yeah. So today it's mostly health care workers. You know, workers and residents of long-term care facilities will come later this week, probably. These folks were picked because hospitals are already getting overwhelmed by the record numbers of people who are getting critically ill every day. And so, you know, they need to be protected so they can save as many people as possible until enough people can get vaccinated. And nursing homes especially have been devastated by the virus. Now, you know, none of these places are getting nearly enough vaccine for even those people living and working in those places, so each of them will have to pick and choose who gets to go first.

CHANG: And how is that going? I mean, this is an incredibly complicated rollout. How has it been unfolding so far?

STEIN: Well, so far, so good as far as we can tell. But, you know, this is a gargantuan, highly choreographed task. Planes and trucks are shipping vaccine to every corner of the country. Each vial has to then be carefully thawed and diluted and loaded into a syringe to make sure not to waste a single drop. But officials know there's a million landmines out there. Army General Gus Perna from Operation Warp Speed says they already discovered at least a couple of batches were simply addressed wrong. And that's nothing compared to what could go wrong.

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GUS PERNA: Could be anything as catastrophic as an accident on the highway with a truck or, God forbid, a plane. There's a storm that's coming into the northeast corner here on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. There's a major storm in the Northwest.

STEIN: So, you know, with every shipment of vaccine that goes out, officials are holding back some in reserve just in case something bad happens because remember; each person needs two shots three weeks apart. So this week they're holding back about 500,000 doses just in case.

CHANG: OK. And real quick - of course, this rollout is going on as the pandemic is worse than ever. Can you just tell us where things stand right now in terms of infection rates and so forth?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The situation has never been so dire. Hundreds of thousands are getting infected every day. Thousands are dying every day. And just of today more than 300,000 Americans have now died. And the next two months - they look just terrible. You know, the vaccine is incredibly good news, but it'll be months before enough people get vaccinated. So even though everyone's really sick of it, everyone has to just keep hunkering down and wearing those masks until enough of us can finally get those shots.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.