NEW YORK (Reuters) -A New York City intensive care unit nurse on Monday became the first person in the United States to receive a coronavirus vaccine, calling it a sign that “healing is coming,” as the nation’s COVID-19 death toll crossed a staggering 300,000 lives lost.

Sandra Lindsay, who has treated some of the sickest COVID-19 patients for months, was inoculated at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New York City borough of Queens, an early epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, receiving applause on a livestream with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“It didn’t feel any different from taking any other vaccine,” Lindsay said. “I feel hopeful today, relieved. I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.

“I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe,” she added.

“This is what heroes look like,” Cuomo wrote in the caption of a photo of Lindsay, wearing a mask and staring resolutely ahead, that he posted on Twitter.

Similar scenes played out at select hospitals in other cities, including Los Angeles, where California Governor Gavin Newsom stood by and applauded as a Kaiser Permanente emergency room nurse rolled up her sleeve for a needle jab on live television.

“It’s been an incredible morning. It’s historic,” said Dr. Leonardo Seoane after he received a shot at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, where he has led some of the clinical trials that found the vaccine 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 illness.

The made-for-TV events, marking the first U.S. coronavirus immunizations outside of clinical trials, were part of a broad campaign by public health authorities and political leaders to reassure Americans of the vaccine’s safety.

Developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE, the vaccine, given as two doses three weeks apart, won U.S. emergency-use authorization on Friday.

By day’s end on Monday, vaccine shipments had made it to nearly all of the 145 U.S. distribution sites pre-selected to receive the initial batch of doses, with a number of major hospital systems launching immunizations immediately.

U.S. officials said no major hiccups were reported on Monday, but U.S. Army General Gustave Perna said on a call with reporters that severe storms in the forecast this week could potentially hamper subsequent rounds of shipments to another 491 locations around the country.

The vaccine’s arrival provided some welcome relief as the country passed the grim milestone of 300,000 lives lost on Monday while COVID-19 hospitalizations soared higher, straining healthcare systems to the breaking point. More than 16 million U.S. coronavirus cases have been recorded to date.

Over the past seven days, the United States has averaged 2,4062 deaths a day, the highest since the pandemic started, according to a Reuters count.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

The process of shipping the first 2.9 million doses of vaccine began on Sunday, just 11 months after the United States documented its first case of COVID-19.

The initial doses have been earmarked for healthcare professionals and nursing home residents, with essential workers, elderly people and individuals with chronic health conditions next in line.

It will take several months before vaccines become widely available to the public at large, and health officials have warned Americans to remain diligent about social distancing and the wearing of face masks to curb virus transmissions.

The first U.S. vaccine shipments departed from Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sunday, packed into trucks with dry-ice to maintain the precious cargo at the required sub-Arctic temperature. They were transported to UPS and FedEx planes waiting at air fields in Lansing and Grand Rapids and flown to cargo hubs in Louisville and Memphis, kicking off a national immunization endeavor of unprecedented complexity.

From Kentucky and Tennessee, the shipments were loaded onto planes and trucks to carry them to the first 145 of 636 vaccine-staging areas across the country. Second and third waves of vaccine shipments were due to go out to the remaining sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This is the most difficult vaccine rollout in history,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News on Monday.

Governors in 26 states and territories were planning to use the National Guard to assist with vaccine distribution, ranging from breaking down shipments into smaller packages to helping with transport, the Guard said on Monday.

U.S. top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC on Monday that Americans with no heightened risk factors could expect to get vaccinated “by the end of March, the beginning of April.”

“Maybe by the end of late spring … So that by the time we get into the fall, we can start approaching some degree of relief,” Fauci said.

U.S. Operation Warp Speed top adviser Moncef Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses – enough for 20 million people – distributed by the end of this month.

That would include vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. An outside U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to consider the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, with emergency use expected to be granted shortly after.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Lisa Baertlein, Nandita Bose, Idrees Latif, Sharon Bernstein, Anurag Maan and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Gabriella Borter and Steve Gorman; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Paul Simao and Bill Berkrot

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