Two national COVID-19 mass vaccination centers opened in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday, marking a key moment in the government’s bid to expedite Japan’s slow-starting inoculation campaign for older residents.
The two facilities are estimated to have a combined capability of administering up to 15,000 shots a day, contributing to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s goal of making 1 million shots per day available to the older population. The administration aims to get the entirety of Japan’s 36 million residents age 65 or older fully vaccinated by the end of July.
On Monday, visitors were queuing up outside the government building in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district that has been repurposed as a vaccination site as early as 7:30 a.m. Once inside, they were assigned a color — red, blue, yellow or green — and instructed to be seated or use elevators according to which color they had, a measure designed to clarify their path through the facility.
After consultations with doctors based on medical questionnaires they had filled out, individuals then received their shot from pairs of nurses, before being escorted to a separate room where they were kept under observation for any possible complications for 15 to 30 minutes.
“The needle hurt so little that I barely noticed it went in. A mosquito bite might’ve been more painful,” university lecturer Wakako Kushiro, 71, said as she emerged from the building.
As someone who routinely conducts in-person classes with students, Kushiro said she had been very eager to get vaccinated. The possibility of side-effects, she said, didn’t worry her that much.
“I figured that the benefits of getting vaccinated would outweigh any risk, so I thought I should go ahead,” she said.
Another visitor, 65-year-old retiree Kazutoshi Yuyama, described the whole process as meticulously prepared. He chose to get vaccinated at the Self-Defense Forces-run center instead of one operated by his municipality after realizing that it would be longer before he could make an appointment at the latter.
“I think this (large-scale vaccination site) thing is the most efficient way for you to get the shot. If things can be run as smoothly as they were today, I feel there should be more centers like this — that would be quite helpful for many people,” he said.
At the moment, responsibility for leading Japan’s rollout efforts has largely been given to municipalities, which process vaccine doses distributed in batches by the central government. But the debut of the two mass vaccination centers underscores the central government’s willingness to play a more active role in Japan’s inoculation campaign.
Run and staffed by the SDF, the large-scale centers will operate independently of a slew of vaccination hubs already run by municipalities nationwide. They will rely on the vaccine developed by Moderna Inc., which was approved on Friday, in lieu of the Pfizer Inc. shots that local governments have been using.
Those eligible to get the shots at the Tokyo center are people age 65 or older who reside in Tokyo or its surrounding prefectures of Saitama, Chiba or Kanagawa. Its Osaka counterpart, meanwhile, covers residents in the same age group who are registered with municipalities in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. The centers are set to close after three months.
Although the launch of the two large-scale vaccination sites symbolizes the central government’s greater involvement in the vaccine rollout, the extent to which they can contribute to speeding up Japan’s inoculation drive — one of the slowest among wealthy nations — may be limited, given their combined capacity of just 15,000 shots per day.
As of Saturday, the percentage of people who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine stood at just 4.37% in Japan, compared with 55.57% in the United Kingdom, 48.58% in the United States, 39.68% in Germany and 34.51% in Italy, according to data compiled by University of Oxford researchers and others on the website Our World in Data.
For the most part, whether Japan can achieve Suga’s goal of finishing inoculating older people by the end of July will continue to hinge on municipalities, which remain responsible for a large chunk of the nation’s vaccine rollout.
Pushed by the Suga government to speed up their rollout efforts, most municipalities — of which there are 1,741 — now claim they can meet the July deadline, with a recent joint survey by the health ministry and internal affairs ministry showing Friday that 92.8% of them have an optimistic view of reaching the target.
In a further bid to expedite the rollout, more and more local governments across the nation are now emulating the central government in establishing additional vaccination sites. A recent Kyodo News poll showed that 28 prefectures and major cities, such as the prefectures of Aichi, Fukuoka and Okinawa as well as the city of Kobe, have either decided to set up or are considering setting up their own large-scale vaccination centers.
In Tokyo, for example, Gov. Yuriko Koike on Friday revealed the capital’s plan to build its own large-scale vaccination venue on a vast empty lot formerly occupied by the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. The envisaged site, if realized, would prioritize inoculating “those who work to protect the safety of society,” such as police officers and firefighters, she said.
Prior to their official debut on Monday, the SDF-run centers in Tokyo and Osaka appeared to have gotten off to a rocky start amid concerns over technical problems with their online reservation systems.
No sooner had bookings begun on Monday last week than it transpired that websites operated by the Defense Ministry were designed in a way that failed to filter out bogus booking requests, such as those based on fictitious ticket numbers or dates of birth, prompting concerns that some appointment slots could be wasted.