EU mass vaccination campaign begins, focusing on nursing homes

BERLIN – From nursing homes in France to hospitals in Poland, older Europeans and the workers caring for them rolled up their sleeves on Sunday to receive coronavirus vaccine shots in a campaign to protect more than 450 million people across the European Union.

The vaccination offers a rare respite as the continent struggles with one of its most difficult moments since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Despite national exclusions, movement restrictions, restaurant closures and cancellations of Christmas gatherings, the virus has crept into Europe during the dark winter months. The spread of a more contagious variant of the virus in Britain has raised so much alarm that much of continental Europe has rushed to close its borders to travelers coming from the country, and the country as a whole immersed in quarantine.

In Germany, a nursing home in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt chose not to wait for Sunday’s planned vaccination of the vaccination campaign in the European Union, and vaccinated a 101-year-old woman and dozens of other residents and staff members on Saturday. hours after the doses arrived. People were also vaccinated in Hungary and Slovakia on Saturday.

Early Sunday, dozens of minibuses filled with cool ice with dry ice to increase the doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to minus 70 degrees Celsius to nursing homes in the German capital, as part of the spate of vaccinations. The launch comes as Europe’s largest country faces its deadliest period since the onset of the pandemic.

With nearly 1,000 deaths recorded every day in Germany in the week before Christmas, a crematorium in the eastern state of Saxony worked around the clock throughout the holidays to keep up.

“I’ve never had to look so bad,” said Eveline Müller, the facility’s director, in the town of Görlitz.

More than 350,000 people in the 27 countries that make up the European Union have died from Covid-19 since the first death toll in France was recorded on 15 February. And for many countries, the worst days have come in recent weeks. In Poland, November was the deadliest month since the end of World War II.

While physicians have learned how to better care for Covid-19 patients, effective medical treatment remains elusive. The rapid development of vaccines is therefore not only seen as a remarkable scientific achievement, but also as a hope for a world that has been knocked off its ashes.

However, the joy that greeted the news of successful vaccine candidates in November was tempered as the rollout in Britain and the United States highlighted the challenges ahead.

Vaccination campaigns in Russia and China, meanwhile, use products that have not removed the same regulatory barriers as those created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the vaccines currently being rolled out in the West.

Mexico on Friday became the first country in Latin America to start vaccinating its population. Regulators in India are expected to soon approve the use of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

By the new year, the largest vaccination effort in human history is expected to be in full swing. But supply shortages, logistical barriers, misinformation, public skepticism and the sheer scale of the effort ensure that it will be an uphill battle against a virus that is constantly evolving.

While experts said there was no indication that a known variant would make vaccinations less effective in individuals, they said further investigation was needed. And the higher the rate of infection, the greater the urgency to get people vaccinated.

The new variant is spreading in Britain with so much ferocity that there is a growing debate about whether more people should give a single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – which is about 50 percent effective in preventing disease – rather than a smaller number of people need the two doses for protection levels at 95 percent.

Yet the deployment of the vaccine has been celebrated across Europe.

“Today we are starting to turn the page in a difficult year,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. posted on Twitter. “The # COVID19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries.”

The Greeks call their vaccination campaign ‘Operation Freedom’. As in much of Europe, skepticism about coronavirus vaccines runs deep, and the slogan is aimed at undecided people.

For Italians – whose suffering at the start of the pandemic was a warning to the world and whose current death toll is once again one of the worst in Europe – a 29-year-old nurse took the first shot.

“This is the beginning of the end,” said nurse Claudia Alivernini after she was vaccinated early in the morning at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome.

“Our healthcare professionals believe in science, we believe in this vaccine. It is important to be vaccinated, for ourselves, for those close to us, for our loved ones, the collectivity and our patients,” she said.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte celebrated the moment.

“Today, Italy is waking up again. It’s #VaccineDay, ”he wrote on Twitter. “This date will stay with us forever.”

For some countries, the first vaccinations offer a chance for redemption due to failures during the first wave of the pandemic.

In the spring, when the virus swept into old age homes in France, the crisis remained in the shadows until the deaths reached a scale that could no longer be ignored. So there was symbolic echo when it came to choosing nursing home residents to receive the first vaccinations in the country.

In Spain, where more than 16,000 people died in nursing homes during the first three months of the pandemic, the vaccination campaign is also set to begin in a nursing home in the city of Guadalajara.

The member states of the European Union have shown solidarity by waiting for the governing body of the bloc, the European Medical Association, to approve the vaccine before launching the coordinated national campaigns. But how it will play out in individual countries will probably not differ.

All EU member states have national healthcare systems, so people will be vaccinated for free. But just as hospitals in poorer member states such as Bulgaria and Romania have been overwhelmed by the latest outbreak of the virus, the networks in those countries will face challenges in distributing vaccines.

While each nation decides to run its campaign, the first phase will generally focus on those who are most at risk of exposure and those who are most likely to have serious health conditions – health care workers and senior citizens.

Most member states said they expected the vaccine to reach the general public by spring, and that the return to some degree of normalcy could hardly come soon.

In October, France was one of the first countries in Europe to introduce a second exclusion, and although it began lifting restrictions, the reopening did not come as quickly as many had hoped.

Museums, theaters and cinemas, which were initially expected to reopen on December 15, remain closed and there is an evening clock from 8pm to 6pm across the country. The lights in the trees along the Champs-Élysées in Paris still shine every night, but no holiday shoppers or tourists are there to cherish in their glow.

Chairs piled up in empty pubs, restaurants and cafes are reminiscent of the absence indicated by 2020.

Nathalie and Adrien Delgado, a Parisian couple in their fifties, said they would be vaccinated as soon as possible. “It’s an act of citizenship,” she said. Delgado said, who celebrated Christmas in Paris with the couple’s two children instead of visiting her mother. “It’s not even for me, but it’s the only way to stop the virus.”

Others were not so sure.

Sandra Frutuoso, a 27-year-old housekeeper who also canceled plans to visit her family in Portugal, said she feared the disease – her husband had been infected and had since recovered – but would not be vaccinated for a long time. not.

“They created it too fast,” she said. “I’m worried the side effects could be worse than the Covid itself for someone my age.”

Germans’ willingness to be vaccinated has also declined in recent months, and the government hopes that acceptance will increase as vaccines expand.

Ugur Sahin, a co-founder of BioNTech, asked last week how long it could take before life could return to normal, warning that the virus would linger for the rest of the decade.

“We need a new definition of ‘normal’,” he told reporters, although he added that with sufficient vaccinations, the closure could end next year.

“This year we have no influence on the number of infections,” he said. Sahin said, “but we need to make sure we have enough vaccines next year so that it will be normal.”

Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin, and Marc Santora of London. Reporting was contributed by Aurelien Breeden of Paris, Niki Kitsantonis of London, Elisabetta Povoledo of Rome, Raphael Minder of Madrid and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.