SOMA, Japan (Reuters) – Tamio Hayashi, 77, doubted he could ever navigate the internet systems set up to register for COVID-19 vaccines across much of Japan.
He hated the idea of using the “troublesome” systems that broke down and confused other older residents, hampering Japan’s vaccination surge.
Luckily, local officials in his small northeastern town helped him through the red tape and he got his vaccines – a rarity in Japan, where authorities are rushing to vaccinate the vulnerable elderly population before the Games start. Summer Olympics in just six weeks.
“It’s great that way,” Hayashi told Reuters after he and his wife received their second dose at a local gym. “You just get a notice that says to come on such and such a day.”
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Soma, a rural town 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, has outstripped most of the country in immunization taking into account lessons learned from the disaster ten years ago.
Japan lags far behind other advanced economies in vaccinating its population – 12% received at least one injection, according to a Reuters tracker, compared to France, the Group of Seven’s second industrial powerhouse at 42% , and the most advanced, Canada, at 63%.
Soma’s agile and local approach avoids reservation systems and fragmented efforts common across Japan. The city has vaccinated 84% of its seniors – up from around 28% nationwide – is now injecting the younger generations and aims to reach people as young as 16 by the end of July, just around the time the Olympics begin.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga wants the elderly population of Japan to be fully vaccinated by July and all adults by November. But that will require increasing the number of shots to one million per day from the peak so far of around 700,000.
Part of Soma’s success is due to its small population of 35,000, which makes it easier to reach residents of the Pacific Coast city of Fukushima Prefecture than overburdened medical staff in giant urban areas.
But the city is also succeeding where much of Japan has failed due to the painful lessons of the tsunami that killed 450 city residents as it swept 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) into the interior. land.
This disaster has taught Soma the importance of making and communicating clear plans, working closely with local health professionals, bringing those affected together in concentrated locations – and not waiting for one. plan come from Tokyo – said Deputy Mayor Katsuhiro Abe.
“I don’t know if you would say we couldn’t have done this without the earthquake,” Abe said. “But this inoculation program comes in conjunction with the experience of the city government and the people who have come together to deal with it over these 10 years.”
Japan has avoided the huge number of COVID-19 cases and death toll seen in many countries, but the start of its vaccine rollout in mid-February was later than most and was initially hampered by the scarcity of stocks of imported vaccines.
The distribution was then uneven, while the reservation systems broke down or confused the elderly people prioritized for the shots.
Soma leaders and doctors, building on the lessons of 2011, began drafting plans and holding immunization exercises in December, months before the vaccines were approved.
The city has set up a central vaccination center, retaining the medical workforce. Residents were called by block, no reservations needed, and the city sent buses for those who couldn’t travel on their own.
After the previous disaster, Soma’s neighbors know they have to look out for each other, while city officials are used to moving from clerical work to crisis management, said Abe, a long-time resident. Soma date.
City dwellers are quickly transported to waiting areas and screenings, then to a partitioned area for their shots.
When some older patients got annoyed when asked to turn left or right for their injections, staff improvised with cartoon posters on the walls: face the rabbit for an injection in your right arm , turn to the dog to bring it into the left arm.
“The strategy needs to be tailored to each local culture and context,” said Kenji Shibuya, who resigned this spring as director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London to help lead the COVID vaccination campaign -19 from Soma.
“It’s a war,” said Shibuya, a persistent critic of Japan’s handling of the pandemic.
He said the best thing the government can do is provide a constant supply of vaccines and supplies to municipalities – and leave the rest to the people on the ground.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by William Mallard)
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