Boxes of coronavirus vaccines rolled off assembly lines in Michigan on Sunday, launching a historic campaign to immunize Americans against the pathogen that’s upended normal life and killed nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. since its discovery in China one year ago.
Shipments will land in every state on Monday so hospitals can begin inoculating frontline workers at risk of infection. At the same time, long-term care facilities will get shots into both the older adult residents and residents with underlying health conditions who are at higher risk of death from COVID-19 and the staff members who take care of them.
Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he hoped the first doses could be administered Monday.
“My hope again is that this happens very expeditiously, hopefully, tomorrow,” Dr. Hahn said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It would be my greatest hope and desire that that occur tomorrow.”
The immunization campaign is a huge undertaking. It will take months to make and deliver enough doses to every American who wants the vaccine, meaning the virus might not be brought to manageable levels until mid-2021, even as hospitals fill up and governors warn of a catastrophic stretch around the winter holidays.
Still, images of workers in bright yellow Pfizer shirts, masks and face shields filling “thermal shippers” with trays of vaccine offered hope.
Packers got a big round of applause from colleagues after they dumped dry ice into the boxes and sealed them with packaging tape. Forklift trucks carted the boxes on wooden pallets and loaded them onto a FedEx truck labeled “Custom Critical” around 8 a.m. Eastern.
President Trump’s vaccine team, Operation Warp Speed, said the first batch will contain 2.9 million doses. The boxes will arrive in rolling shipments through Wednesday at sites dictated by the states.
The U.S. government is holding back another 2.9 million doses to guarantee booster-shots for the initial recipients 21 days later, plus 500,000 additional doses in case of early mishaps in shipping and handling.
The Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer’s shots for emergency use in people age 16 or older late Friday under pressure from the White House to get cracking.
Dr. Hahn denied reports that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows ordered him to issue an emergency use authorization by Friday or resign.
“There was a desire for us to move as quickly as possible,” Dr. Hahn told CNN. “We have. Our absolute obligation to the American people was to make sure we did a thorough scientific review. We needed to assure our gold star in assessing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine was done and was done properly.”
A second vaccine, from Moderna, uses the similar messenger-RNA platform to Pfizer’s shots and is on track for approval by the end of this week.
Operation Warp Speed expects to send out 40 million doses of either vaccine before the end of the year.
Pfizer did not take any money from the Trump administration in developing its vaccine, though it entered a pre-purchase agreement with the U.S. to provide 100 million doses with the option to provide 500 million more.
Other companies, including Moderna, accepted federal help and even worked alongside government scientists to create their vaccines. The administration said it procured an additional 100 million doses from Moderna on Friday, for 200 million total.
Johnson & Johnson is developing a promising single-dose shot that could be approved for emergency use by January or February.
Dr. Moncef Slaoui, an Operation Warp Speed science adviser, said Sunday that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to drag on unless 75% to 80% of the country takes the vaccine to produce the type of herd immunity needed to corral transmission.
“We hope to reach that point between the month of May and the month of June,” he told “Fox News Sunday.” “It is however critical that most of the American people decide and accept to take the vaccine. We are very concerned by the hesitancy that we see, the level of hesitancy that we see.”
“But we hope that now that all the data is out and available to be discussed in detail, that people will keep their mind open to listen to the data and hopefully agree that this is a very effective and safe vaccine, and therefore take it,” he said.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said people will have to wear their masks well into 2021 because it is unclear whether a vaccinated person who fends off disease is still able to transmit the virus.
“That is an urgent question to discover. It will take us a couple of months to figure that out and there’s still some debate about the ideal design of the studies to do that. What that means is if you’ve had the vaccine, and people are going to start getting it this week, you still need to wear the mask, you still need to think of yourself as potentially contagious, even though you are protected from getting sick at a very high percentage of certainty,” Dr. Collins said.
Optimism around the vaccine contrasts with sorrowful scenes across the country. Transmission is elevated, prompting health officials to warn that the U.S. is facing the most daunting weeks in its history.
More than 108,000 people are hospitalized for COVID-19 in the U.S., meaning the average daily death toll of 2,300-plus could worsen.
The case-fatality rate — the percentage of those who test positive and then die — has dropped from over 6% at the start of the pandemic to 1.9%, as treatments improve and younger people are becoming a greater share of reported infections, but the virus so widespread that the death toll continues to climb.
The nationwide toll could hit the grim milestone of 300,000 on Monday or Tuesday — right as states unpack their first boxes of vaccines.
• Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.