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First coronavirus vaccines are administered in Pa. and U.S., with thousands more on their way, as nation’s death toll hits 300,000

Monday brought a stark contrast between the optimism afforded by the vaccine's rollout and the devastation of the worsening surge.

Charmaine Pykosh, an acute care nurse practitioner, receives Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine from Tami Minnier, chief quality officer, at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Lawrenceville. Ms. Pykosh was the first person out of five health-care workers to receive the vaccine shortly after it arrived at the facility.
Charmaine Pykosh, an acute care nurse practitioner, receives Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine from Tami Minnier, chief quality officer, at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Lawrenceville. Ms. Pykosh was the first person out of five health-care workers to receive the vaccine shortly after it arrived at the facility.Read moreAlexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette

Frontline health-care workers in Pittsburgh, New York, and other cities became the first Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine on Monday, eliciting cheers and relief on a day many hoped would mark the beginning of the end of the devastating pandemic.

“Here we go,” said University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Tami Minnier, injecting one of Pennsylvania’s first vaccines into the arm of Charmaine Pykosh, an acute-care nurse-practitioner who smiled behind her mask and flashed a thumbs-up to a throng of photographers.

Across Pennsylvania, 111,150 doses of the ultra-frozen vaccine were destined for hospitals statewide; Philadelphia’s Einstein Hospital got doses Monday, with other city hospitals anticipating Tuesday deliveries. And shipments rolled into New Jersey, where health-care workers will start receiving them Tuesday in Newark.

As the vaccine was reaching its first recipients, the U.S. death toll reached 300,000. With months before most people are vaccinated, officials still warned of a difficult period ahead in a pandemic that has infected more than 16 million and paralyzed the nation since March.

Nationwide, about 2,400 people are dying daily, Johns Hopkins University data indicate. Pennsylvania logged 1,250 deaths last week alone and reported nearly 6,000 people hospitalized with the virus on Monday. New Jersey’s seven-day average of new cases had reached a new high.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy cautioned the first inoculations would not mean the infection and hospitalization numbers would “magically return to zero,” and said precautions such as mask-wearing continue to be critical.

“This is not the end,” he said. “It is, however, a momentous day. It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for. It is a day of hope and optimism for getting to the other side.”

Mass vaccination possible by summer

With the first vaccinations going to health-care workers and nursing home residents, the general population could start receiving shots by the end of February if two or three additional coronavirus vaccines are approved, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. The overwhelming majority of the population needs to be immunized for the vaccine to be most effective; Anthony Fauci, the government’s most prominent infectious disease expert, said the country may be able to accomplish that by late spring or early summer.

Federal approval of the Moderna vaccine is expected within days, and vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson could follow. Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials anticipated they could receive shipments of the Moderna vaccine next week.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on Friday night and green-lighted by an advisory panel on Saturday. Trucks and planes were moving shipments across the country Sunday.

So far, the United States has enough to inoculate 20 million people by the end of December, and as many as 50 million people by the end of January, Azar said.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots over three weeks; Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the federal government was storing the second doses for the state and would send them out when it was time to administer them.

In New Jersey, immunizations will start Tuesday at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Doses also arrived Monday at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and other hospitals in the state, Murphy said. Of the state’s initial batch of doses, about 56,000 will go to health-care workers and about 20,000 to residents of long-term care facilities.

‘Life lost too soon’

In addition to Einstein and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Monongahela Valley Hospital in Washington County received doses on Monday. One hundred trays of 975 doses each will arrive at 85 more hospitals statewide throughout the week. Separately, Philadelphia is receiving its own allotment of 13,650 doses, the state said.

With immunization record-keeping expected to be an enormous undertaking, the state said vaccine providers are required to report demographic data on people who receive shots within 24 hours. Because multiple vaccines will be available, the records will also serve to guarantee that people receive the correct one when they come back for their second shots.

Levine said the vaccine brought another reason to stay the course, comply with state restrictions, and follow precautions. “Until we can get everybody vaccinated, we need people to stand together … to stop the spread of this virus,” she said.

» READ MORE: The COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t tested in pregnancy, but experts say it’s still worth considering if you’re expecting

Across Pennsylvania, the percent of coronavirus tests that came back positive climbed above 16% last week; it was under 5% at the start of the surge. The Department of Health reported 5,970 coronavirus patients hospitalized Monday, a 35% increase from two weeks ago.

More than a third of hospitals in the Healthcare Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh and 13 western counties, anticipate staffing shortages due to the pandemic within the next week, according to the state.

And the number of patients on ventilators in Pennsylvania on Monday, 697, was slightly higher than at the April peak — even though physicians are using ventilators more selectively on critically ill patients than at the start of the pandemic, when less was known about the virus and treatments.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 is stressing some Philadelphia hospitals more than others, report suggests

Pennsylvania reported 7,962 newly confirmed coronavirus cases Monday, along with 10,684 cases recorded Sunday. It recorded 184 deaths Monday and Sunday.

“Each of those deaths represents a life lost too soon,” Levine said.

Waiting and hoping

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Murphy together called for Congress to pass a long-delayed stimulus package to provide relief to businesses — particularly restaurants, which in Pennsylvania were contending with the temporary ban on indoor dining — and to help with logistics of vaccine distribution.

“The entire country is crying out to you to do it,” Wolf said. “It’s disgraceful that when record numbers of America are dying or being hospitalized, our federal leaders seem incapable of providing Americans with desperately needed support.”

Murphy said paycheck protection funds and other federal aid helped keep businesses and residents afloat in the spring, and that more would keep essential workers employed through the next few months. The governors spoke on a Zoom call with health-care advocacy organization Protect Our Care.

» READ MORE: Millions of women will receive a COVID-19 vaccine that wasn't tested in pregnancy. Some experts think that was a mistake.

New Jersey reported 4,805 new cases and 25 deaths. The state is averaging 4,935 new cases a day, the most at any point during the pandemic. As of Sunday, nearly 3,600 patients were hospitalized.

In Delaware, new restrictions were in effect Monday, including a 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants and bars and capacity reductions for retail stores and businesses. The restrictions are in place until Jan. 11.

Delaware received its first shipment of the vaccine in Kent County on Monday and expected to get the rest of its 8,775 doses Wednesday, the state said.

“The vaccine’s arrival does not mean we are in the clear. In fact, now more than ever, we need to step up our efforts to keep each other safe,” Gov. John Carney said on Twitter. “We know that’s hard, particularly at this time of year, but we are almost through this.”

The day’s indelible image may be that of Long Island Medical Center ICU nurse Sandra Lindsay, sitting in a blue chair as Dr. Michelle Chester injected the vaccine into her left arm on national television. Lindsay was the first American to receive the vaccine outside of clinical trials, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Lindsay didn’t move as she got the jab.

“I feel hopeful today,” she said afterward. “Relieved.”

Staff writers Rob Tornoe, Marie McCullough, Dylan Purcell, and Katie Park contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.