Prabhakara Atreya, acting designated federal officer of Vaccines and Related...

Prabhakara Atreya, acting designated federal officer of Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC), attends a virtual public meeting of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Tiskilwa, Illinois on Thursday. Credit: Bloomberg/Daniel Acker

It’s a series of letters and numbers that brings hope.

BNT162b2.

That’s the name of the first COVID-19 vaccine that received its initial approvals for emergency use in the United States.

After a deep dive into the extraordinarily promising science and data behind the Pfizer drug, the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel on Thursday paved the way for individuals across the country to start receiving shots, possibly as soon as next week.

This is only the first step on what will be a challenging path.

The panel’s approval came on the heels of what was the nation’s deadliest day from the coronavirus so far: More than 3,000 people died on Wednesday. Closer to home, Suffolk County saw 34 deaths from COVID-19 in the first week of December — more than the months of August, September and October combined.

Health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff will be among the first to get the vaccine, which means most of us will be waiting a while. Long Island will be getting just 26,500 doses initially. That’s not even enough to vaccinate every resident in the Village of Lindenhurst. Most of the Island’s 3 million residents will have to be patient.

As the promise of a vaccine becomes reality, it’s not the time to become complacent. This is not time to discard your mask, or go out with a group of friends. As Hanukkah starts, it’s not time to crowd around a menorah. And it’s not time to plan large family gatherings for Christmas, or go to a party for New Year’s Eve.

Instead, it’s a time to stay safe, to quietly celebrate with those in our households, and to postpone those traditional gatherings.

Long Islanders are testing positive for the coronavirus in record numbers from the Nassau border to Montauk. No place is spared and some communities are approaching frightening numbers. Hospitals across the region already are 82% full. If they reach 90% capacity, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he will have to shut down the region, again. Our stores, restaurants and other small businesses are deeply hurting. Another shutdown will mean the end of many of them, and significant damage to the region’s economy. And more of our loved ones will get sick and need a scarce hospital bed.

We can’t afford for any of that to happen.

Meanwhile, as state and local officials prepare for what might be the worst of this pandemic in January, there is also the need to convince the public of the vaccine’s safety, and the reasons why residents should roll up their sleeves. Local nursing homes need more guidance on who will get vaccinated, when and how. And officials must have plans for the rest of the vaccine rollout, so when more doses head Long Island’s way, the public understands when and how they’ll be able to get it.

We’re on the cusp of better days ahead. But we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.

— The editorial board