E.U.’s Mass Vaccination Marketing campaign Begins, With Nursing Houses as Focus
BERLIN – From nursing homes in France to hospitals in Poland, older Europeans and the workers who care for them rolled up their sleeves on Sunday to receive coronavirus vaccination shots as part of a campaign to protect more than 450 million people across the European Union.
The vaccinations offered a rare respite as the continent grappled with one of its most precarious moments since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Despite national bans, restrictions on movement, closings of restaurants and cancellations of Christmas gatherings, the virus has haunted Europe into the dark winter months. The spread of a more contagious variant of the virus in the UK has caused such an alarm that much of continental Europe closed its borders to travelers from the country, effectively quarantining the nation as a whole.
In Germany, a nursing home in Anhalt in Eastern Saxony did not wait for the planned introduction of the vaccination campaign across the European Union on Sunday and vaccinated a 101-year-old woman and dozens of other residents and employees on Saturday. Hours after the cans arrived. People were also vaccinated in Hungary and Slovakia on Saturday.
Early Sunday, dozens of minivans carrying coolers filled with dry ice to keep the doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine from rising above minus 70 degrees Celsius fanned out into nursing homes across the German capital as part of the vaccination wave. The rollout is happening as Europe’s largest nation is facing its deadliest phase since the pandemic began.
With nearly 1,000 deaths per day in Germany in the week leading up to Christmas, a crematorium in the eastern Saxon country was operating around the clock to keep up.
“I’ve never had to see it so badly,” said Eveline Müller, the director of the facility in the city of Görlitz.
More than 350,000 people in the 27 countries of the European Union have died of Covid-19 since the first death was recorded in France on February 15. 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 doctors have learned to better care for Covid-19 patients, effective medical treatment remains difficult to achieve. So the rapid development of vaccines is being hailed not only as a remarkable scientific achievement, but also as a hope for a world that is off its axis.
However, the joy that greeted the news of successful vaccine candidates in November was tempered when its launch in the UK and the United States highlighted the challenges ahead.
Vaccination campaigns in Russia and China use products that have not passed the same regulatory hurdles as those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the vaccines currently being launched in the West.
Mexico became the first country in Latin America to start vaccinating its population on Friday. And regulators in India are expected to approve the use of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University soon.
By the New Year, the greatest vaccination effort in human history is expected to be in full swing. But supply bottlenecks, logistical hurdles, misinformation, public skepticism, and the scale of the effort make it an uphill battle against an ever-evolving virus.
While experts said there was no evidence that any known variant would affect the effectiveness of vaccines in individuals, they said more study was needed. And the higher the infection rate, the more urgent vaccination is.
The new variant is spreading in the UK with such ferocity that there is a growing debate over whether to get a single dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which is about 50 percent effective at preventing disease, rather than one fewer people taking the two doses are required for levels of protection estimated at 95 percent.
Yet the launch of the vaccine was celebrated across Europe.
“Today we turn the page in a difficult year,” wrote the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on Twitter. “The vaccine # COVID19 was delivered to all EU countries.”
Apr. 26, 2020 at 6:29 am ET
The Greeks call their vaccination campaign “Operation Freedom”. As in much of Europe, there is great skepticism about coronavirus vaccines, and the slogan aims to influence indecisive people.
For Italians whose suffering served as a warning to the world at the start of the pandemic and whose current death toll is again among the worst in Europe, a 29-year-old nurse stepped up to take the first shot.
“It’s the beginning of the end,” said nurse Claudia Alivernini after being vaccinated early that morning at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome.
“We health workers believe in science, we believe in this vaccine, it is important to be vaccinated for ourselves, for those around us, for our loved ones, the community and our patients,” she said.
The Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte celebrated this 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 of some sort of repayment for errors made during the first wave of the pandemic.
In the spring, when the virus entered nursing homes in France, the crisis remained in the shadows until deaths reached levels that could no longer be ignored. There was therefore a symbolic response when the residents of nursing homes were selected to receive the first vaccinations in the country.
In Spain, where more than 16,000 people died in nursing homes in the first three months of the pandemic, the vaccination campaign should also begin in a nursing home in the city of Guadalajara.
European Union member states showed solidarity by waiting for the bloc’s regulator, the European Medical Association, to approve the vaccine before embarking on coordinated national campaigns. But how these will develop in individual countries is likely to vary.
All EU Member States have national health systems, so people are vaccinated for free. However, just as hospitals in poorer Member States like Bulgaria and Romania have been overwhelmed by the recent wave of viruses, networks in these countries will face challenges in distributing vaccines.
As each nation determines how their campaign will be conducted, the first phase generally focuses on those who are most at risk and most likely to experience serious health problems – healthcare workers and the oldest citizens.
Most Member States have announced that the vaccine will reach the general public by the spring and a return to a sense of normalcy could hardly be too soon.
France was among the first nations in Europe to introduce a second lockdown in October, and while it has started lifting restrictions, the reopening hasn’t come as quickly as many had hoped.
Museums, theaters, and cinemas, originally scheduled to reopen on December 15, will remain closed, and there is a curfew across the country from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The lights in the trees along the Champs-Élysées in Paris still twinkle every night, but no vacation shoppers or tourists are there to bask in their glory.
Chairs stacked in empty bars, restaurants and cafes are a reminder of the absence in 2020.
Nathalie and Adrien Delgado, a Parisian couple in their fifties, said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible. “It’s an act of citizenship,” said Ms. Delgado, who celebrated Christmas in Paris with the couple’s two children instead of visiting their mother. “It’s not even for me, but it’s the only way to stop the virus.”
Others weren’t so sure.
Sandra Frutuoso, a 27-year-old housekeeper who had also canceled plans to visit her family in Portugal, said she feared the disease – her husband was infected and has since recovered – but will not be vaccinated for “long”.
“You did it too quickly,” she said. “I’m concerned that the side effects could be worse for someone my age than the Covid itself.”
Germans’ willingness to get vaccinated has also declined in recent months, and the government hopes that adoption will increase with the introduction of the vaccines.
When asked last week how long it could be before life could return to normal, Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech, warned that despite immunization, the virus would persist for the rest of the decade.
“We need a new definition of” normal, “” he told reporters, although he added that with adequate vaccinations, lockdowns could end as early as next year.
“This year we will not have any influence on the number of infections,” said Sahin, “but we have to be sure that we have enough vaccines next year to make it normal.”
Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin and Marc Santora from London. The reporting was written by Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Niki Kitsantonis from London, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Raphael Minder from Madrid and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.