Japan races to vaccinate older people against COVID-19 ahead of Olympics
Japan has mobilized medics and nursing sisters to shoot the elderly in Tokyo and Osaka as the government desperately tries to speed up the vaccination rollout and reduce coronavirus infections ahead of the Olympics.
- Prime Minister of Japan pledged to complete vaccination of 36 million elderly people in the country by the end of July
- The government aims to immunize up to 10,000 people daily in Tokyo and 5,000 in Osaka centers
- Calls mount to cancel Olympics as Japan battles fourth wave of infections
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Tokyo Olympics after a year of delay and has made an ambitious pledge to complete immunizations for the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite possible skepticism.
Concerns for public safety as many Japanese go unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for the Games, which are due to begin on July 23, to be canceled.
Japan vaccinated 4.4% of its population, the slowest vaccination rate among the world’s largest and wealthiest countries.
It has recorded 711,360 infections and 12,232 deaths from COVID-19 from the virus.
Hospitals in Osaka – Japan’s second largest city – are retreating under a huge wave of new coronavirus infections, running out of beds and ventilators as exhausted medics warn of a ‘system collapse’ and advise against hold the Olympics this summer.
Mr Suga’s government has repeatedly extended the area and duration of a viral state of emergency since the end of April and tightened its measures to combat the virus.
Currently, Tokyo and nine other regions that are home to 40% of the country’s population are under a declaration of emergency and further expansion is deemed inevitable.
With COVID-19 cases still high, Mr Suga now says vaccines are essential for controlling infections.
He did not make vaccinations conditional on the holding of the Olympics and had Pfizer donate its vaccine to athletes through the International Olympic Committee, while trying to speed up Japan’s vaccination campaign as anti-Games sentiment is growing.
Thousands to get vaccinated daily
At the two mass inoculation centers staffed by the Japanese military, the goal is to inoculate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and 5,000 more per day in Osaka for the next three months.
People vaccinated at the centers on Monday were the first in Japan to receive Moderna jab, one of two overseas-developed vaccines approved by Japan on Friday.
Previously, Japan had only used the Pfizer jab. And only about 2% of the population of 126 million received the required two doses.
Japan began vaccinating healthcare workers in mid-February while meeting a standard requirement for clinical testing in Japan – a move that many experts have found statistically meaningless and has only caused delays.
Vaccinations for the next group – the elderly, who are more likely to suffer from the severe effects of COVID-19 – began in mid-April but were slowed by murky booking procedures, unclear distribution plans and a shortage of medical personnel to give vaccines.
The planned completion of vaccines developed in Japan remains uncertain, but Japanese government officials hope Friday’s approvals of the Moderna and AstraZeneca jabs will help speed up the rollout.
“Speeding up the deployment makes us feel more secure as it affects our social life and our economy,” said Munemitsu Watanabe, a 71-year-old office worker who had his first chance in central Tokyo.
The current group eligible for vaccination is those aged 65 or over. Some officials say it may take until around March to reach the younger generations.
But its potential for progress is unclear. Plans to administer AstraZeneca injections are still on hold due to concerns about the rare cases of blood clotting complications reported elsewhere.
Japan also lacks medical staff capable of giving injections as only doctors and nurses can do it legally and they are already busy treating patients with COVID-19.
Under pressure, Mr Suga’s government allowed retired dentists and nurses to administer injections, and on Monday he called for help from pharmacists.
AP / Reuters