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U.K. opens mass-vaccination centers in race to curb surging COVID-19 infections

U.K. mass vaccination program begins
Tens of millions in the U.K. to be vaccinated by spring 02:59

Epsom, England — As the worldwide total of reported coronavirus cases tops 90 million, mass-vaccination centers have opened across the United Kingdom as the government races to protect the most vulnerable people. Britain has lost 30,000 people to COVID-19 in the last 30 days alone, and officials say the worst of the outbreak is looming in the weeks ahead as the new, highly contagious variant of the virus spreads.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata was at one of the new mass-vaccination sites, at the famous Epsom Downs horse racecourse south of London, as it swung into action.

As he reports, one big difference between the vaccination efforts in the U.S. and the U.K., is organization. Everyone who shows up at the vaccination centers in Britain has received a letter inviting them to make an appointment. Another key factor: They're using the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which is far easier to store and distribute, but is still awaiting approval in the U.S.

U.K.'s Boris Johnson reinstates national lockdown amid spiraling infections, new COVID-19 strain 02:41

At the sprawling Epsom racecourse, the race underway from this week is to reach as many at-risk members of the population as possible before the runaway strain of the coronavirus first detected in southeast England does. 

That includes 88-year-old Cliff Taylor, a former jockey who used to race at Epsom Downs.

"The sooner we all get our vaccination, the sooner we can get rid of this horrible disease," he told D'Agata, adding that, in his opinion, "anybody that turns it down — they want to have a second think about it."

Covid-19 Mass Vaccination Site Opens At Epsom Racecourse
People line up to receive a first shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the NHS vaccination center set up at Epsom Downs Racecourse, January 11, 2021 in Epsom, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty

There were very few second thoughts among those pulling into the center in Epsom, a region south of London where COVID-19 deaths have surged so badly that a temporary mortuary has had to handle the overflow of bodies.

Thousands lined up for their vaccinations without hesitation.

"No, my mother's been desperate to have it," Lucinda Cooper told CBS News as she accompanied her 80-year-old mom, Nicola Young, to the Epsom racecourse. "She was very pleased to get the letter and couldn't wait."

Seven super-vaccination centers opened across the U.K. this week, adding to 200 hospitals and hundreds of doctor's offices already administering vaccinations.

New coronavirus strain spreads in U.S. and U.K. 08:40

The ambitious goal is to get a first vaccine injection to around 15 million of the most vulnerable people by the middle of February. 

The stakes could hardly be higher: The mass-vaccination rollout comes as Britain's Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty warns the U.K. is headed toward the most dangerous few weeks since this pandemic began.

At hospitals from London to Cornwall, the strain on hospitals is brutal, and getting worse. More than 82,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.K. — the deadliest outbreak in Europe.

Despite a new nationwide lockdown in place for just over a week, the new strain is still surging. It's estimated that one in 50 people across the country are carrying the virus. In London, experts believe that number could be as high as one in 20.

"It's a race against time," warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson. "We can all see the threat that our NHS (National Health Service) faces, the pressure it's under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places."
At the moment the centers like the one in Epsom are open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., but the government is under pressure to adopt the model used in Israel, where vaccinations are being offered 24 hours a day.

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