Japan opens mass vaccination centers 2 months before Games

Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics

Suga’s government has repeatedly expanded the area and duration of a virus state of emergency since late April and has made its virus-fighting measures stricter. Currently, Tokyo and 9 other areas that are home to 40% of the country’s population are under the emergency and further extension is deemed unavoidable.

At the two mass inoculation centers staffed by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the aim is to inoculate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and another 5,000 per day in Osaka for the next three months.

People inoculated at the centers on Monday were the first in Japan to receive doses from Moderna Inc., one of two foreign-developed vaccines Japan approved on Friday.

Previously Japan had used only Pfizer Inc., and only about 2% of the population of 126 million has received the required two doses.

Vaccinations for the next group — the elderly, who are more likely to suffer serious COVID-19 effects — started in mid-April but has been slowed by bureaucratic bumbling including reservation procedures, unclear distribution plans and shortage of medical staff to give shots.

Completion of Japan-developed vaccines is still uncertain, but Japanese government officials hope the approvals Friday of Moderna and AstraZeneca will help speed up the rollout.

“Speeding up the rollout makes us feel safer because it affects our social life and the economy,” said Munemitsu Watanabe, 71-year-old office worker who got his first shot at the Tokyo center. “If 80-90% of the population gets vaccinated, I think we can hold the Olympics smoothly.”

The current group eligible are 65 years or older. Some officials say it may take until around March to reach younger generations.

But its potential for progress is unclear. The plans for administering AstraZeneca’s shots are still pending due to concerns about the rare instances of blood-clotting complications reported elsewhere.

Japan also has a dire shortage of medical staff who can give the shots since only doctors and nurses can legally do so — and they are already busy treating COVID-19 patients.

Under pressure, Suga’s government has allowed allowed dentists and retired nurses to inoculate, and on Monday asked for pharmacists’ help. There are worries, too, that expanding the criteria may increase vaccine hesitancy in the public.

Separately, several local governments, including Aichi in central Japan and Gunma near Tokyo and Miyagi in the north, were also to open their own large vaccination centers on Monday.

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