Medical Examiner

Watching 90-Year-Olds Receive the First Vaccines Provides a Moment of Hard-Earned Joy

A woman in a wheelchair surrounded by medical professionals clapping
Margaret Keenan, 90, became the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. Jacob King/Getty Images

It has been very difficult to feel hopeful lately, but this morning, the video of Margaret Keenan wheeling down the hospital hallway did it for me. Keenan, age 90, was the first person on planet Earth to receive the approved Pfizer vaccine. Not a vaccine given as part of a clinical trial, or one rushed out ahead of large-scale tests, but a real, vetted vaccine. For the historical occasion, she chose to wear a bright blue shirt featuring a penguin amid cartoon blobs of snow. She was wearing a mask, but you can tell that she is smiling.

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It was a hard-earned moment. Throughout the pandemic, there have been so many questions about when a vaccine would arrive and how effective it would actually be at preventing illness. It has been just one of a long list of things to worry about. Older people have been among the hardest hit in the pandemic. The vast majority of people to die of COVID-19 are over 65. A staggering 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in this country have been of folks living or working in nursing homes. For this high-risk set, even those who do not catch the virus, and who are not in nursing homes, the pandemic has likely been perilously lonely.

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But today, as vaccinations happened in the U.K., we got a small cast of delightful British elderly people acting out an honest-to-God inflection point in the pandemic. There’s Keenan, wheeling down a hallway to the applause of hospital staff. In an interview with reporters after, she projects the perfect sense of measured elation: “At the moment I don’t know how I feel. It’s just so strange, so wonderful, really.”

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There’s the second guy to receive the shot, whose name is William Shakespeare. That’s his name! No further commentary here.

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There’s Aubrey Bass, 96, who received the shot later in the day. He described 2020, in which he lost his wife and then isolated alone, as “the worst year of my life,” to the BBC. Now, he’s looking forward to seeing his great-grandkids, which he says will be “marvelous.”

There’s Martin Kenyon, 91, who seems to have basically wandered into a CNN interview after wandering into getting the jab. Kenyon explains that he woke up this morning, “rang up Guy’s Hospital,” and said, “What’s this thing, you’re doing the vaccination?” Then, after going out for “a rather nasty lunch,” he got his shot. He shows the interviewer a little card that says the date of his return appointment for the follow-up shot. “Very unexciting,” he says of the card.

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Part of the total charm of these stories is seeing people in a high-risk group, who really need the vaccine, get it. We still have tons to work out in terms of how to equitably deliver this thing, but elderly people getting it first is not controversial. Today was a small but satisfying turn of justice. It was also remarkable just how normal it all seemed—despite the historic nature, there was the penguin shirt, the bad lunch, the familiar tensing of the arm for a needle to go in. What will you pick out to wear when it is your turn? Yes, it might be a while still. But for the first time, it was easy to picture it happening.

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