Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite skepticism it’s possible. Worries about public safety as many Japanese remain unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for canceling the games, set to start on July 23.
Suga's government has repeatedly expanded the area and duration of a largely voluntary request-based virus state of emergency since late April and has made its virus-fighting measures stricter. Currently, Tokyo and nine other areas that are home to 40% of the country's population are under the state of emergency and a further extension is deemed unavoidable.
With COVID-19 cases still high, Suga now says vaccines are key to getting infections under control. He has not made vaccinations conditional for holding the Olympics and has arranged for Pfizer to donate its vaccine for athletes through the International Olympic Committee, while trying to speed up Japan's inoculation drive as anti-Olympic sentiment grows.
Suga, speaking to reporters after a brief visit to the Tokyo center, said accelerating the vaccine rollout is an “unprecedented challenge.”
“We will do whatever it takes to accomplish the project so that the people can get vaccinated and return to their ordinary daily lives as soon as possible,” he said.
At the two centers, staffed by about 280 military medical staff and 200 civilian nurses, the aim is to inoculate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and 5,000 per day in Osaka for the next three months.
Watch all the action from the Tokyo Games Live on NBC
In hardest-hit Osaka, where hospitals are overflowing, with tens of thousands of people becoming sicker or even dying at home, dozens began lining up before the inoculation center opened early Monday. In Tokyo, some vaccine recipients said they took taxis or shuttle buses to get to the center to avoid packed commuter trains.
People inoculated at the two centers 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.
Japan began vaccinating health care workers in mid-February after delays resulting from its decision to require additional vaccine clinical testing inside Japan — a decision many experts said was medically meaningless and only slowed the inoculation process.
Vaccinations for the next group — the elderly, who are more likely to suffer serious COVID-19 effects — started in mid-April but have been slowed by reservation procedures, unclear distribution plans and shortages of medical staff to give shots.
The completion of Japanese-developed vaccines is still uncertain, but government officials hope the approvals Friday of Moderna and AstraZeneca will accelerate inoculations.
“Speeding up the rollout makes us feel safer because it affects our social life and the economy,” said Munemitsu Watanabe, a 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.”
That goal seems impossible to meet. Those currently eligible are 65 years or older, and some officials say it may take until next March before younger people are fully vaccinated.
Japan also has a dire shortage of medical staff who can give 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 dentists and retired nurses to perform inoculations, and on Monday asked for pharmacists’ help. Suga said he is also considering adding paramedics and clinical laboratory technicians to create a pool of “several tens of thousands" of medical personnel. There are worries, however, that loosening the criteria may increase vaccine hesitancy in the public.
Also Monday, Tokyo’s downtown Sumida district organized a one-time inoculation event at the Kokugikan sumo arena, a venue for Olympic boxing, to attract elderly people with a lottery to win sumo-themed souvenirs.
Several other local governments, including Aichi in central Japan and Gunma near Tokyo and Miyagi in the north, also were to open their own large vaccination centers on Monday.
Associated Press journalists Chisato Tanaka and Kantaro Komiya contributed to this report.