Japan starts to vaccinate its elderly population

People in Japan aged 65 or older began receiving coronavirus jabs on Monday in a rollout expected to take months. They represent almost one third of the entire population – but many are being forced to wait with vaccination doses in short supply.

About 36 million elderly people are slated to receive the dual-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. They are second in line after healthcare workers, many of whom are still waiting for theirs.

Demand is far outstripping available supply. Hachioji City in western Tokyo has the capital's largest elderly population of about 160,000. But the central government's first allocation for the demographic was enough for just 1,900 people.

When the city office started receiving online reservations earlier this month, there were 3,700 hits per second from people trying to access the website. The slots were full in just 90 minutes.

Buddhist priest Akatsuka Yoshitaka, 74, was one of the lucky ones. He wanted to get a jab because he meets many people as part of his job.

Akatsuka says he is hearing many complaints from people who missed out on the first round. "There are those much older than me who wanted to get vaccinated. I feel sorry for those people," he notes. "It would have been better if there were enough vaccines to go around."

At the Hachioji facility, people who received the shot were asked to stay awhile afterwards in case of any side effects.
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Many of the doctors who were administering the vaccines are yet to be inoculated themselves. The rollout for healthcare workers started in February, but only 20% received their first dose in the first month. Just 7% received both doses.

"I think the proper order is for healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated first, then provide inoculations to the public," says Ishizuka Taichi, head of the Hachioji Medical Association. "But we medical workers are the only ones who can give the vaccinations. I'm carrying out my work with a sense of duty."

Hachioji city officials report 253 people were vaccinated on Monday. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide visited in a show of support.

"Getting the vaccination is crucial to battle the coronavirus," said Suga, who defended the pace of Japan's vaccination program compared with other countries.

"The government instigated a process with a domestic clinical trial, and then screening, which took about three months," Suga explained. "We adopted that approach in the belief that the safety and security of the people should be the top priority."

Shots for all elderly by June

The latest stage of the vaccine rollout comes as Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures take stricter infection prevention measures to counter rising cases and new variants of the virus.

"Vaccinating the elderly, who could become seriously ill, is important because it will reduce the burden on hospitals," Kono Taro, the Minister overseeing the rollout, said on Sunday. "The government will do the utmost to support local governments and speed up inoculations."

The Japanese Health Ministry expects enough vaccines will be supplied for all elderly people by the end of June. Statistics published on its website show that as of April 9, about 1.1 million people in Japan have received their first dose. Almost 500,000 have had both.