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By Alberto Fajardo
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico plans to begin inoculating health workers against COVID-19 on Thursday with the arrival of the first vaccines, as the government battles a sharp surge in infections that has pushed hospitals to their limits.
Vaccinations will begin at hospitals in Mexico City and the northern city of Saltillo, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Wednesday before the first Pfizer vaccines were flown into the capital from Belgium.
"It's true that we still face a tremendous pandemic, but today is the beginning of the end," Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a news conference at Mexico City's airport.
Still, the first shipment only contained 3,000 doses of the vaccine. The next one will contain 50,000 doses, with Mexico slated to receive 1.4 million units of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine by Jan. 31, the foreign ministry said.
By contrast, Costa Rica said it would receive its first 9,750 doses of Pfizer's vaccine on Wednesday night.
Lopez Obrador said he wanted the vaccine to be used in additional areas as officials seek to reach workers at nearly 1,000 hospitals treating coronavirus patients nationwide. Senior citizens and people with chronic illnesses would be next.
Pfizer's is the first COVID-19 vaccine to reach Mexico, which has also signed deals for vaccines from other firms.
With hospital bed occupancy rates surging, Mexico has put the heavily populated capital and two states into semi-lockdowns to try to prevent the virus spreading more, while urging residents to avoid holiday gatherings and socializing.
A Stanford University-Mexico CIDE research group study found Mexico City could breach its hospital capacity in late December and peak in late January.
Last weekend, the Mexico City government sent out a text message saying hospitals were "at the limit."
Mexico has recorded nearly 1.4 million cases and 119,495 deaths from COVID-19, the fourth highest death toll worldwide.
In Mexico City's bustling center, banners warned "you are in a high infection area" while a message on loudspeakers urged the public to wear masks and avoid parties.
"The only thing is for us all to be well and get through this year," street vendor Ricardo Flores said of his family. "There won't be any Christmas dinner, there won't be any gifts."
Gerardo Reyes, an accountant, explained that he had taken precautions to allow his family to celebrate together. "We all got tested to be sure we won't have any problems," he said.
Others, especially in Mexico City's vast informal economy, just hope to scrape by as tighter health restrictions bite.
Street food seller Fidelina Esperon fretted her livelihood could be about to dry up.
"The little I had saved, I've already spent it all," she said.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito, Alberto Fajardo and Dave Graham, Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Nick Macfie and Grant McCool)