A female World War II veteran has become the first VA patient to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday.

Margaret Klessens, 96, was inoculated Monday at the VA Bedford Healthcare System, the first of thousands of veteran residents of long-term health facilities and VA medical staff expected to get the vaccine in the coming weeks.

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According to the VA, the department began delivering and administering the vaccine, made by Pfizer and BioNTech, at the New Orleans and Bedford, Massachusetts, VA medical centers.

Thirty-five more VA hospitals are expected to receive shipments of the vaccine this week to administer to staff and veterans living in communal facilities, who are considered at risk for serious cases of COVID-19.

“Ultimately, the department’s goal is to offer the vaccine to all veterans receiving care at VA,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “As increased vaccine supply is obtained, VA plans to distribute these vaccines at additional facilities to provide the vaccine to more veterans and employees.”

According to the VA, the 37 facilities to receive the vaccine this week were chosen for their large veteran populations and ability to store vaccines at extreme subzero temperatures.

The Bedford VA nursing home where Klessens lives serves 240 veterans. Since the beginning of the outbreak, 473 people at the Bedford VA, including patients and staff, have contracted COVID-19; 38 have died. Currently, the facility is monitoring 42 active cases in its patient population.

At the VA facility in New Orleans, a total of 1,275 veterans have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak, with 77 veterans or staff members currently fighting the virus. Seventy-nine veteran patients have died in New Orleans.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 129,979 veterans have tested positive for the virus and 5,542 have died. Nearly 18,000 veterans, VA employees and other VA patients were fighting active cases of the illness as of Dec. 11, according to the most recent data published by the VA.

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The department has said it will distribute its allocations of vaccines first to frontline health care workers and residents of its nursing home and spinal cord injury long-term care facilities.

After essential personnel and the oldest veterans are inoculated, the VA will prioritize minorities, those with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and veterans who live in high-risk environments like non-VA nursing homes or group living facilities.

As more vaccines become available, the VA will enter a “general implementation phase,” when most patients will be able to get one, although officials with Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s effort to field a coronavirus vaccine, said widespread availability is not expected until June.

“Hopefully by the middle of the year, I hope most Americans will have been immunized, which means the level of hesitancy that exists currently will have been decreased because people will have learned more information … about the vaccine,” said Moncef Slaoui, Warp Speed’s chief science adviser, during an interview hosted by The Washington Post.

Clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine indicate it is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. Two doses are required, 21 days apart.

Vaccine advisers for the Food and Drug Administration will also meet this week to consider an emergency use request from vaccine developer Moderna — a company that has created a vaccine similar to Pfizer’s that data indicate is also roughly 95% effective against the illness.

Last week, the VA announced the list of its facilities expected to get the vaccine, with the first allocation of 73,000 doses shipping this week.

According to the VA, the sites will closely monitor patients and staff for side effects related to the vaccine, as well as any adverse medical events following administration.

Anecdotal reports from participants in the vaccine research trials say they experienced pain at the injection site, fatigue, fever and general malaise mainly after the second dose — a sign researchers say means that the body is generating an immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the pathogen that causes COVID-19.

The 35 other sites where the VA is distributing the vaccine include:

Birmingham, Alabama, VA Health Care System

Phoenix VA Health Care System

Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System

Palo Alto, California, VA Health Care System

Eastern Colorado VA Health Care System

Connecticut VA Health Care System

Washington, D.C., VA Health Care System

Orlando, Florida, VA Health Care System

Augusta, Georgia, VA Health Care System

Edward J. Hines Jr. VA Hospital, Illinois

Lexington, Kentucky, VA Health Care System

Maryland VA Health Care System

Ann Arbor, Michigan, VA Health Care System

Minneapolis VA Health Care System

Harry S Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital, Columbia, Missouri

St. Louis VA Health Care System

Omaha, Nebraska, VA Health Care System

Southern Nevada VA Health Care System

Raymond G. Murphy VA Health Care System, New Mexico

New York Harbor VA Health Care System

Western New York VA Health Care System

Durham, North Carolina, VA Health Care System

Cleveland VA Health Care System

Oklahoma City VA Health Care System

Portland, Oregon, VA Health Care System

Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, Philadelphia PA

Pittsburgh VA Health Care System

Caribbean VA Health Care System

Memphis VA Health Care System

Dallas VA Medical Center

Michael E. DeBakey VA Health Care System, Houston

Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital, San Antonio

Richmond, Virginia, VA Health Care System

Puget Sound, Washington, VA Health Care System

Milwaukee VA Health Care System

— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: The VA Needs 8,000 Healthy Volunteers for COVID-19 Vaccine Trials



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