54ºF

US vaccinations ramp up as 2nd COVID-19 shot nears

WASHINGTON – Hundreds more hospitals around the country began dispensing COVID-19 shots to their workers in a rapid expansion of the U.S. vaccination drive Tuesday, while a second vaccine moved to the cusp of government authorization.

A day after the rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus shots, the Food and Drug Administration said its preliminary analysis confirmed the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health. A panel of outside experts is expected to recommend the formula on Thursday, with the FDA's green light coming soon thereafter.

The Moderna vaccine uses the same technology as Pfizer-BioNTech's and showed similarly strong protection against COVID-19 but is easier to handle because it does not need to be kept in the deep freeze at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius).

Another weapon against the outbreak can't come soon enough: The number of dead in the U.S. passed a staggering 300,000 on Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University, with about 2,400 people now dying per day on average.

The devastating toll is only expected to grow in the coming weeks, fueled by travel over Christmas and New Year's, family gatherings and lax adherence to mask-wearing and other precautions.

Packed in dry ice, shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began arriving Tuesday at more than 400 additional hospitals and other distribution sites.

On Wednesday, health care workers at Naval Hospital Jacksonville will start receiving vaccinations, as well employees at UF Health Gainesville. Baptist Health said it will likely follow suit next week.

The first 3 million shots are being strictly rationed to front-line health workers and nursing home patients, with hundreds of millions more shots needed over the coming months to protect most Americans.

The rollout provided a measure of encouragement to exhausted doctors, nurses and other hospital staffers around the country.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday in West Palm Beach, Gov. Ron DeSantis reminded the public that the shot comes in two doses.

“Both Moderna and Pfizer, people think that first shot offers some protection, but obviously you’re going to need to get that to have staying power,” he said.

RELATED: Florida announces delay in delivery of Pfizer vaccine

DeSantis said he plans to reveal more in the near future about vaccines coming to long term care facilities. He believes the FDA will approve the Moderna vaccine for emergency use, and he says if that happens, the second vaccine could arrive in Florida by the beginning of next week.

Nearly 6,000 vaccine doses have arrived in Georgia and are being administered in Chatham, Glynn and surrounding counties. But Georgia health officials say the general public may have to wait until summer to receive a vaccine.

While vaccinations are happening nationwide, health experts and Jacksonville-area leaders are still calling on everyone to wear a mask, including hundreds of Florida doctors and mayors.

The federal government is planning hundreds more shipments through the weekend.

Shots for nursing home residents won’t start in most states until next week, when some 1,100 facilities are set to begin vaccinations. Government officials project that 20 million Americans will be able to get their first shots by the end of December, and 30 million more in January.

That projection assumes swift authorization of the Moderna vaccine, which also requires two shots for full protection. The U.S. government has purchased 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and orders for 200 million doses of the Moderna serum. Assuming no manufacturing or distribution delays, that would be enough to vaccinate 150 million Americans by mid-2021.

Elsewhere around the world, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being given in Britain and Canada. And European Union regulators moved up a meeting to assess the vaccine to Dec. 21, more than a week earlier than planned, under pressure from Germany and other countries on the continent.

In scrutinizing early results of a 30,000-person study, the FDA found that Moderna's vaccine worked just about the same as Pfizer-BioNTech's.

The Moderna vaccine was more than 94% effective overall at preventing COVID-19 illness, and 86% effective in people 65 and older. The FDA uncovered no major safety problems. Side effects can include fever, fatigue and aches as the vaccine revs up the immune system.

Even such a large study can’t detect very rare problems. But the FDA looked carefully for signs of allergic reactions after Britain last week reported some possible reactions among people with a history of severe allergies who received the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.

The FDA found no serious allergic reactions in the Moderna study. About 1.5% of vaccine recipients and 1.1% who got dummy shots reported possible smaller, “hypersensitivity” reactions.

Both Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech's shots are so-called mRNA vaccines. They aren’t made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there is no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.

___

Associated Press writers Tamara Lush, Holly Ramer and Candice Choi contributed to this report. Porter reported from Newark, New Jersey.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.