MEXICO CITY – Mexico started its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Thursday, becoming the first country in Latin America to do so and bringing a hint of hope to the population amid the resurgence of the virus.
María Irene Ramírez, 59, chief nurse at Ruben Leñero hospital in Mexico City, was the first person in the country to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, as part of the government’s strategy to focus on health professionals first in December and January before moving on to the older Mexicans considered to be most at risk.
“This is the best gift I could have received in 2020,” said Ramírez during the ceremony, which was broadcast on national television. “We are afraid, but we have to move on because someone has to face this fight, and I am willing to continue in the line of fire.”
Latin America has become an epicenter of the pandemic, with inequality, a large informal workforce, densely populated cities and a fragile health system, hampering efforts to stem the spread of the virus and treat the sick. Countries in the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, have accumulated some of the highest mortality rates in the world, as economies collapsed under the weight of government blockages and mismanagement.
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also arrived in Costa Rica overnight, and Chile expects its first 10,000 doses of the vaccine on Thursday. In Argentina, the first 300,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V landed in Buenos Aires on Thursday morning.
The vaccination effort in Mexico is starting as a new vicious wave of the virus has filled hospitals and prompted authorities to call for a blockade in the capital, Mexico City, and in four other states. More than 120,000 people died across the country, although limited testing means that the actual count can be much higher.
The authorities intend to inoculate 75% of the population by the end of 2021, with the vaccine available for free throughout the country. Mexico has vaccine contracts with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, as well as with the Canadian-Canadian company CanSino.
Officials announced that the country will receive 250,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this month, with vaccinations starting in Mexico City and the neighboring state of Mexico, which has also been hit hard by the pandemic. Local media reported that 3,000 doses arrived from Belgium on Wednesday.
“We are still facing a tremendous pandemic, the worst we have ever experienced, but today is the beginning of the end,” Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign secretary, said at a news conference after the first doses arrived in Mexico on Wednesday. “Today we can clearly see that we are going to defeat him, this virus that has come to transform our lives”.
The vaccination campaign comes as Mexico enters a threatening phase of the pandemic, with hospitalizations across the country reaching the levels last seen during the first peak of the outbreak in the summer.
In Mexico City, where about nine million people live, hospitals are close to the limit, with 85% of beds occupied, according to official figures, and doctors begging on social media for residents to stay at home.
A study published this week by academics from Stanford University and the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico found that, at current rates, there was a high likelihood that hospital capacity in the metropolitan area of Mexico City “will be exceeded in the beginning January 2021 “. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Mexico City officials raised the capital’s alert level to red, the highest status, last week, closing all but essential deals. But the blockade came weeks after the numbers reached critical levels, even by the government’s own metrics.
Earlier this week, officials said about 600 health professionals from other states would travel to and around Mexico City to help support the capital’s besieged doctors and nurses.