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The first person to receive a COVID-19 shot in the U.S. is now a vaccine activist

Woman receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, in New York.
(Mark Lennihan / Pool Photo)

She became a vaccine celebrity by accident.

Since being hailed as the first person in the U.S. to get a COVID-19 shot outside a clinical trial, New York nurse Sandra Lindsay has become a prominent face in the country’s biggest-ever vaccination campaign.

She has been promoting the shots on panels, in Zoom town halls and at other events.

“I encourage people to speak to experts who can answer their questions, to access trusted science. I let them know that it’s OK to ask questions,” said Lindsay, who has spoken at events in the U.S. and Jamaica, where she is from.

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Lindsay got her shot in a widely televised moment Dec. 14, 2020, as the U.S. was kicking off its vaccination effort. After the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency-use authorization just days earlier, the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines had been arriving at hospitals for high-risk healthcare workers.

It was a tough time for Lindsay, who saw the effect of COVID-19 up close at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens.

The first full year of the biggest vaccination drive in American history has saved many lives but has left many behind.

“I just felt broken, defeated, just tired and burned out,” said Lindsay, director of critical care nursing at the hospital. “Witnessing the overwhelming loss of lives, loss of livelihoods.”

Northwell Health said that it asked for volunteers to get the shots and that Lindsay “happened to go first” among those who raised their hands. The moment was aired on TV, and she became widely regarded as the first American to get the shot outside of a clinical trial.

Since then, Lindsay has been recognized by President Biden as an “Outstanding American by Choice,” a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that recognizes naturalized citizens.

With the arrival of the Omicron variant and new surges around the country, Lindsay’s still addressing fears and misinformation. Some mistakenly believe the shots aren’t needed if they eat well and exercise, Lindsay said. Others say the vaccines are a way for the government to track people, or an experiment on Black people.

In meeting with COVID response team and U.S. governors, Biden reiterates his plan to make 500 million rapid tests available to Americans next month.

She said she acknowledges the mistrust in communities of color, which stems from past experience. But she reassures people by noting that she did her own research before getting her shot and that there are safeguards in place.

“We’ve had millions and millions of people around the world get vaccinated without any significant adverse event,” she said.

She also stresses that getting a shot will help protect others.

Some worries, like fear of needles, can be easier to address, she said.

After children became eligible for the vaccines, Lindsay offered comfort to a 9-year-old girl getting her shot at the hospital. She had to decline the girl’s request to vaccinate her since she’s not a pediatric nurse, but offered to hold her hand — and did.

Later, Lindsay got a letter from the girl saying how much the gesture had meant.

Looking back, Lindsay said she’s grateful for the role she’s been able to play: “It’s very rewarding to hear people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you very much. You’ve inspired me to get vaccinated.’”


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