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Britain begins COVID-19 vaccine rollout; grandmother receives 1st shot

Nurse May Parsons injects Margaret Keenan with the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, making her the first person in the world to receive the drug. Photo courtesy of NHS National Medical Director Stephen Powis/Twitter 
Nurse May Parsons injects Margaret Keenan with the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, making her the first person in the world to receive the drug. Photo courtesy of NHS National Medical Director Stephen Powis/Twitter 

Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Nearly a year after diagnosing its first COVID-19 infection, Britain's National Health Service on Tuesday inoculated its first citizens against the coronavirus as it begins its largest vaccine campaign in history.

Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother, at 6:31 a.m. became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the University Hospital in Coventry in central England.

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"I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19," the former jewelry shop assistant who turns 91 next week said. "It is the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year."

May Parsons, the nurse who administered the historic injection, said it was "a huge honor" to deliver the first life-saving jab.

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"I'm just glad that I'm able to play a part in this historic day," she said. "That last few months have been tough for all of us working in the NHS, but now it feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel."

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The rollout started less than a week after British regulators on Wednesday authorized the use of the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine. The British government has made an agreement with the pharmaceutical giant for 40 million doses of the drug, which are to be delivered throughout 2021 in stages.

The NHS said it has set up 50 vaccination hubs in hospitals throughout the country with more facilities to start vaccinating in the coming weeks and months.

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Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, said via Twitter on Monday that "all parts of the U.K. now have doses of the coronavirus vaccine."

"The deployment of this vaccine marks a decisive turning point in the battle with the pandemic," NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens said. "NHS staff are proud to be leading the way as the first health service in the world to begin vaccination with this COVID jab."

Those over 80 years old who are either hospitalized or about to be discharged after hospital stays will be among the first to receive the vaccine as well as NHS workers who are high risk while care home providers are being asked by the Department of Health and Social Care to book staff appointments at vaccination clinics.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that while Tuesday marks "a huge step" in the nation's fight against the pandemic, he cautioned that mass vaccination will take time and that people need to remain cautious.

"We must remain clear-eyed about the challenges that remain," Johnson said. "As the program ramps up in the weeks and months ahead, it is as important as ever to keep to the COVID Winter plan -- following the rules in your area and remember the basics of hands, face and space."

NHS National Medical Director Stephen Powis also warned that the rollout will be a marathon not a sprint due to challenges of such a inoculation effort and those the vaccine presents, such as needing to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

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"Despite the huge complexities, hospitals will kickstart the first phase of the largest scale vaccination campaign in our country's history," he said.

The vaccine, which is typically delivered by an injection in the shoulder, requires two doses, and Keenan will receive her second booster jab in 21 days to ensure she has the best chance to be protected from the virus.

"I can't thank May and the NHS staff enough who have looked after me tremendously, and my advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it -- If I can have it at 90 then you can have it too!" she said in an attempt to assuage worries about the vaccine.

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The country confirmed its first coronavirus cases in late January, and the virus has since infected 1,737,960 people in the country, including 69,752 people who lost their lives to COVID-19, according to data from the British government.

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