MEXICO CITY — Mexico began its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Thursday, becoming the first country in Latin America to do so, and providing a sliver of hope to the population amid a roaring resurgence of the virus.
Maria Irene Ramirez, 59, the head nurse at the Ruben Lenero hospital in Mexico City, was the first person in the country to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, as part of the government’s strategy to focus first on health care workers in December and January before moving on to the older Mexicans considered most at risk.
“This is the best gift that I could have received in 2020,” Ms. Ramirez said during the ceremony, which was broadcast on national television. “We are afraid, but we have to keep going 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 work force, densely packed cities and a fragile health system hindering efforts to stop the spread of the virus and treat the sick. Countries in the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, racked up some the of the world’s highest death tolls as economies crumbled under the weight of lockdowns and government mismanagement.
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also arrived in Costa Rica overnight, and Chile is expecting its first 10,000 doses 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 vicious new wave of the virus has packed hospitals and led authorities to call for a lockdown in the capital, Mexico City, and in four other states. More than 120,000 people have died nationwide, although limited testing means the true count could be much higher.
Authorities are aiming to inoculate 75 percent of the population by the end of 2021, with the vaccine available free of charge nationwide. Mexico has vaccine contracts with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, as well as with Chinese-Canadian firm CanSino.
Authorities announced that the country would receive 250,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this month, with inoculations to begin in Mexico City and the neighboring State of Mexico, which has also been hard hit by the pandemic. Local media reported that 3,000 doses had 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,” said Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign secretary, at a news conference after the first doses arrived in Mexico on Wednesday. “Today we can clearly see that we are going to defeat it, this virus that has come to transform our lives.”
The vaccination campaign comes as Mexico enters an ominous phase of the pandemic, with hospitalizations nationwide reaching levels last seen during the first peak of the outbreak in the summer.
In Mexico City, home to some nine million people, hospitals are nearing a breaking point, with 85 percent of beds filled, according to official figures, and doctors begging on social media for residents to stay home.
A study published this week by academics at Stanford University and Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics found that, at current rates, there was a high probability that hospital capacity in the Mexico City metropolitan area “will be outstripped by early January 2021.” The study has not yet been peer reviewed.
Mexico City authorities increased the capital’s alert level to red, the highest status, last week, shutting down all but essential businesses. But the lockdown came weeks after the numbers reached critical levels, even by the government’s own metrics.
Earlier this week, authorities said that nearly 600 health care workers from other states would travel to Mexico City and the surrounding region to help support the capital’s beleaguered doctors and nurses.