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As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the pandemic and surpasses a death toll of more than 525,000 people, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has acquired materials connected with the first-known doses of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S. The first doses of vaccine were administered Dec. 14 by Northwell Health, a New York-based health provider. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic March 11, 2020.
Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse with Northwell Health, was the first person known to receive the vaccine in the U.S. Northwell donated Lindsay’s vaccination record card, scrubs and hospital identification badge. Northwell also donated the now empty Pfizer-BioNTech vial that contained the first doses of approved vaccine dispensed in the U.S., as well as objects related to vaccine distribution and the effort to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.
The acquisition further includes additional vials from doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines administered at Northwell, as well as the supplies needed to prepare, inject and track the vaccinations, such as diluent, syringes and vaccination record cards. Northwell also donated shipping materials that document the enormous effort required to support vaccine distribution and preserve vaccine potency, such as a specialized vaccine “shipper” that monitors and maintains temperature.
“The urgent need for effective vaccines in the U.S. was met with unprecedented speed and emergency review and approval,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “These now historic artifacts document not only this remarkable scientific progress but represent the hope offered to millions living through the cascading crises brought on by COVID-19.”
“Dec. 14 was a historic moment for all: the day the very first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. “It was our first real sign of hope after so many dark months in the fight against the global pandemic. Northwell was prepared to put shots in arms as soon as the vaccine arrived, not to make history but to protect our frontline workers battling COVID-19 as quickly as possible. But when Sandra Lindsay rolled up her sleeve, we weren’t just showing our team members the safety and efficacy of this groundbreaking vaccine—we were telling the world that our country was beginning a new fight back to normalcy. It was an extraordinary moment, and I thank the Smithsonian for preserving this important milestone.”
In April 2020, the museum formed a rapid-response collecting task force to address the COVID-19 pandemic and document the scientific and medical events as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics and culture. Due to health and safety protocols, the museum is only able to bring in a limited number of artifacts into the building. Additional artifacts related to the pandemic will be brought in and processed when the museum returns to full operation.
The museum’s staff also canvassed the nation, asking what it should collect to document this pandemic. The public can continue to make suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org and share their Stories of 2020 at a site that will serve as a digital time capsule for future generations. The portal, open through April, will accept stories in English or Spanish and photos or short video.
The Northwell donation joins the museum’s medicine and science collections that represent nearly all aspects of health and medical practice. Highlights include penicillin mold from Alexander Fleming, Jonas Salk’s original polio vaccine, early genetically engineered drugs and 19th-century patent medicines. The museum is working on a signature 3,500-square-foot exhibition, “In Sickness and in Health,” that will explore how Americans’ efforts to contain, control and cure illnesses have helped shape the nation’s history. The exhibition will feature artifacts from 19th-century vaccination tools and diagnostic instruments to cardiac implants, imaging technologies and objects from the global smallpox eradication campaign and the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the museum’s resources related to vaccines and the role of antibodies is a website, “The Antibody Initiative.”
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