Pennsylvania health care giant UPMC has chosen staff who are critical to operating its facilities as among those getting the first round of vaccinations, said Dr Graham Snyder, who led the centre’s vaccine task force.

“It’s very exciting. I will be thrilled, that moment when we administer our first dose,” Snyder said Saturday. “That will clearly be a watershed moment for us.”

Snyder said the UPMC system estimates that half its employees are willing to get the vaccine as soon as it’s offered to them.

The vaccine is heading to hospitals and other sites that can store it at extremely low temperatures — about 94 degrees below zero. Pfizer is using containers with dry ice and GPS-enabled sensors to ensure each shipment stays colder than the weather in Antarctica.

Doses should be delivered to all vaccination sites identified by states, such as local pharmacies, within three weeks, federal officials said.

The 40-hospital Oschner Health System in Louisiana and Mississippi expects to receive more than 9000 doses in the coming days, said Dr Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of hospital quality.

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Employees approved for the first round are getting texts and emails directing them to schedule their initial injection, she said.

“I would say there’s enthusiasm,” Kemmerly said on Saturday. “There’s that thought that maybe they don’t have to be so afraid to come to work if they can be vaccinated and be immune.”

The rollout will ensure there is enough vaccine to give people the two doses needed for full protection against COVID-19. That means the government is holding back 3 million doses to give those vaccinated in the first round a second shot a few weeks later.

The Food and Drug Administration authorised emergency use of the vaccine Friday, saying it is highly protective and presents no major safety issues. While US regulators worked for months to emphasise the rigor and independence of their review, they faced political pressure until the final stages.

Concerns that a shot was rushed out could undermine vaccination efforts in a country with deeply ingrained scepticism about vaccines. The head of the FDA said the agency’s decision was based on science, not politics, despite a White House threat to fire him if the vaccine wasn’t approved before Saturday.

While the vaccine was determined to be safe, regulators in the UK are investigating several severe allergic reactions. The FDA’s instructions tell providers not give it to those with a known history of severe allergic reactions to any of its ingredients.

Another vaccine by Moderna will be reviewed by an expert panel this week and soon afterward could be allowed for public use.

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