KASUKABE, Japan—In the U.S., 12-year-olds are getting vaccinated against Covid-19. In Japan, Yasuko Minagawa, 83 years old, is too young to be eligible.
“I don’t know when my turn will come. All I can do is wait,” Ms. Minagawa said.
Her home city of Kasukabe, an hour north of Tokyo, initially limited vaccine appointments to those 90 and older and now has opened the door to the 85-to-89 cohort. Ms. Minagawa was at a vaccination center on Thursday because her husband, Michio Minagawa, 88, was getting his first shot of the vaccine from
With Tokyo set to host the Summer Olympics in a little more than two months, the country is laboring through a slow rollout of vaccines. Japan offers an example of the frustrations in some countries in East Asia and the Pacific that have weathered the pandemic far better than the U.S. and Europe, yet are stuck with restrictions on daily life while the U.S. is rapidly reopening.
“I can’t go anywhere freely. I’d really like to go to a hot spring soon,” said 74-year-old Katsuko Tamura while using an abacus to keep the books at the hardware store she runs with her husband.
Government officials are calling for patience, saying the rollout is about to speed up. They forecast that most people over 65 will be able to get vaccinated by the end of July.
“Unlike concert tickets, they aren’t going to sell out,” said
a government minister in charge of vaccines. “Everyone who wants to can receive their shots.”
For now, though, only a little more than 1% of Japanese are fully vaccinated compared with nearly half of adult Americans.
‘I can’t go anywhere freely. I’d really like to go to a hot spring soon.’
Japan approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in February and has been inoculating doctors, nurses and other medical workers since then. Vaccination of the elderly started last month, and
vaccine is set to win approval this month.
Individual cities and towns are in charge of delivering the shots. Some are having trouble finding enough nurses to do the job.
Some 29% of the population of Japan—about 36 million people—is 65 or older, making it among the oldest nations in the world. That led many cities to set high age minimums for the initial vaccination batches and focus on the 5% of the population that is 85 or older.
Cities that did open the door to a wider swath of the elderly have found themselves overwhelmed.
The city of Ibaraki in Osaka prefecture, in a region that has experienced a wave of coronavirus infections, opened an in-person booking window for vaccine appointments this month. With limited slots available, dozens of elderly people started lining up late on a recent Sunday ready for an all-nighter so they could secure a slot Monday morning.
City officials, fearing for the health of those in line, handed out the appointment slots they had planned to distribute the next morning—only to find a new problem around dawn, when dozens more showed up. The graying crowd grew unruly when it learned all the appointments were gone. Officials said they had to call the police, and the mayor showed up at 6 a.m. to calm down his constituents. The window is now closed.
The city of Mito, north of Tokyo, has kept open its in-person window at city hall for people to make appointments, but it is requiring people to call for an appointment to use the window. “You need a reservation to get a reservation,” city official Yuki Horie said. “This way, old people with weak legs have no need to stand in line for a long time.”
More than 11,000 people have died in Japan from Covid-19, about one-twentieth the U.S. level on a per-capita basis. The total number of deaths in Japan in 2020 was slightly lower than the previous year, in part because other infectious diseases such as the flu virtually disappeared.
But a recent surge in infections, accelerated by more contagious variants of the virus, has overwhelmed staff at the limited number of hospitals that are accepting serious Covid-19 cases. Tokyo and other cities are under a state of emergency until at least the end of May.
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Polls show that a majority of Japanese want the Olympic Games, scheduled to start July 23, canceled or postponed, and an international survey found that three in four people thought the speed of vaccinations was too slow, the highest level of dissatisfaction among countries surveyed. To move faster, some cities are preparing round-the-clock vaccination centers.
The city of Kasukabe has said it doesn’t think it can get to all the elderly by the government’s July target. Mr. Minagawa, the 88-year-old there who got his first shot, said it took him half a day on the phone to make a reservation because he doesn’t have a computer or smartphone. He said he wasn’t looking forward to doing it all over again for his second shot.
Japan’s Coronavirus Battle
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