The centers opened their doors for the first time at 8 a.m. Monday morning. Medical workers administered 5,000 inoculations at the Tokyo site, and 2,500 in Osaka. The government aims to double combined capacity from next week to vaccinate up to 15,000 people per day.
Elderly people who live in Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa – as well as Osaka and adjacent Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures – are eligible to make appointments. During the first week, reservations are limited to people who live in Tokyo's 23 wards or Osaka City.
The venues are managed by the Japan Self-Defense Forces, with about 180 doctors and nurses staffing the Tokyo site and 100 in Osaka. In addition, about 200 nurses have been recruited from the private sector.
As infections continue to spread around Japan, people are eager take advantage of the new vaccination opportunities. Many arrived at the Tokyo venue hours before their appointments, including 65-year-old Shibata Kenji.
"I wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible," said the Shinagawa Ward resident. "I woke up at around 4 a.m. this morning full of anticipation."
Rollout has a slow start
Japan's vaccination program for healthcare workers started in February before expanding to the elderly in April. So far, only six percent of people aged 65 or older have received at least one dose.
Government data shows that vaccination rates vary widely between regions. In Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan, 17.5 percent of senior citizens are at least partly vaccinated.
One of the reasons for the comparatively fast pace is the number of local clinics. Wakayama has the nation's largest number per 100,000 people. In the prefectural capital, more than 20 percent of elderly residents have already received their first dose – most of which were administered at clinics.
At the opposite end of the curve is Ehime Prefecture, where only 3.2 percent of seniors have received at least one shot.
Local governments set up vaccination centers
Local governments are also setting up their own large-scale vaccination centers, including two that opened on Monday in Aichi and Miyagi Prefectures.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu has said the government will provide financial support to municipalities that establish vaccination hubs.
Some concerns are being voiced over possible double-bookings because the reservation systems of the state-run venues and the local government sites are not linked. The Defense Ministry is calling on people with double bookings to cancel one to prevent vaccine doses from being wasted.
The state-run venues plan to give staff any surplus doses resulting from appointment cancellations and other reasons. A large number of medical workers remain unvaccinated.
Medical personnel shortages
Japan’s government is considering adding paramedics and clinical laboratory technicians to the list of those allowed to administer coronavirus vaccines.
Current laws stipulate that vaccinations can only be carried out by doctors or nurses working under their instruction. Dentists are allowed to vaccinate people in areas with personnel shortages.
Calls are growing to allow more medical personnel to help, especially in populous urban areas. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide appears to be taking heed.
"I hope to secure tens of thousands of people who can be dispatched to inoculation centers that are short of staff," he said on Monday as the large-scale centers opened their doors.