Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica have become the first countries in Latin America to start vaccinating their populations against COVID-19, with frontline healthworkers and nursing home residents receiving the first shots.
Mexico, which has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death tolls, launched its mass vaccination programme at a hospital in the capital, Mexico City, in a televised event on Thursday.
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“It’s the best gift I could receive in 2020,” 59-year-old Mexican nurse Maria Irene Ramirez said as she received the injection.
“It makes me safer and gives me more courage to continue in the war against an invisible enemy. We’re afraid but we must continue.”
The launch came a day after the first 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrived by courier plane from Belgium.
Medical personnel were first in line as vaccinations began in Mexico City, the capital and epicentre of the current wave of infections. The country now has more people hospitalised for COVID-19 than it saw at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in late July.
The Health Department says 18,301 people are in hospitals across Mexico being treated for the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus. That is 0.4 percent more than in July. In Mexico City, some 85 percent of hospital beds are in use.
The state of Morelos, just south of the capital, became the fourth of Mexico’s 32 states to declare a “red” alert, which will lead to a partial lockdown and the closure of non-essential businesses starting Thursday.
Mexico has recorded more than 1.3 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 120,000 deaths linked to the disease, the fourth-highest death toll in the world, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
In Chile, the first South American country to administer COVID-19 shots, 46-year-old nursing assistant Zulema Riquelme was the first person shown receiving the jab, hours after the first 10,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived by plane.
“I’m very excited and nervous – many emotions,” she said after being inoculated in the presence of President Sebastian Pinera in the capital.
“You’re everyone’s hope,” Pinera told her.
Meanwhile, Argentina received an initial batch of about 300,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.
The vaccine arrived at Ezeiza International Airport, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, on a special flight of carrier Aerolineas Argentinas from Moscow, according to Reuters news agency witnesses and images shown on local television.
Officials in Argentina, the third country to approve the Sputnik vaccine after Russia and Belarus, said they plan to start administering the vaccine in the coming days.
Meanwhile, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said the country has secured 30 million coronavirus vaccines from three suppliers, enough to inoculate 15 million people – more than two-thirds of the population – in the first half of 2021.
The doses arrived at Santiago airport from Pfizer’s manufacturing hub, the town of Puurs in Belgium, just before 7am local time (10:00 GMT) on Christmas Eve, according to a statement from the presidency.
The doses were transferred by police helicopter to a logistics centre in the capital Santiago, with vaccinations due to begin later in the morning.
Chile is among the countries in Latin America to have struck the most bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, including deals with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sinovac as well as the global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX.
Costa Rica also received its first shipment of the Pfizer doses on Wednesday, and the country administered the first shot on Thursday to a wheelchair-bound, 91-year-old nursing home resident, Elizabeth Castillo.
“I am very grateful to God, because I have asked so much of him. My life is very important to me, so take advantage of every moment,” Castillo said.
Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada told a news conference earlier in the day that the vaccinations “may be the beginning of the end of this pandemic”.
Quesada was at Juan Santamaria Airport in the capital San Jose to greet a flight delivering the first 9,750 doses of the vaccine, which arrived at 9pm Wednesday (03:00 GMT on Thursday).
Costa Rica last week announced it had approved the vaccine, with health workers and the elderly now expected to be the first to receive jabs.
The country of about five million people had recorded more than 160,000 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, with 2,065 deaths. Like many others in the region, its health system has been placed under severe strain by the number of infections.