Local governments expedite booster campaigns as omicron cases surge in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A resident of Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, receives a COVID-19 booster shot in the ward on Friday.

Many local governments are offering elderly residents COVID-19 booster shots earlier than planned amid a surge in coronavirus cases across Japan linked to the highly contagious omicron variant.

However, the speed at which cases are increasing has made it difficult for some local governments to prepare their booster campaigns.

“With cases increasing every day, I was worried the figure might have doubled by tomorrow,” said a 91-year-old woman who received a booster shot in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, on Friday. “I have chronic illnesses, so I’m relieved I was able to get a shot.”

The central government had initially planned to offer booster shots after an interval of at least eight months between the second and third vaccinations, but in December last year, it said the interval could be shortened for some demographics.

Following the announcement, the Setagaya Ward Office rescheduled the booster campaign from March to early February for people aged 65 or older who are not residents of nursing care homes or other facilities, but later decided to start the rollout in early January.

It will use Pfizer Inc. vaccines that were supplied by the central government in November and December last year.

“We want to speed up the vaccination process not only for the elderly but for all ward residents,” Setagawa Ward Mayor Nobuto Hosaka said at a press conference Friday.

The central government plans to distribute about 48 million vaccine doses nationwide by the end of March and about 31.68 million elderly people are expected to be offered booster shots.

However, the delivery schedule for additional doses has not yet been announced. Hosaka said, “We want the schedule to be released as soon as possible.”

Breakthrough infections

There have been many cases of breakthrough infections in which fully vaccinated people have contracted the highly contagious omicron variant.

The central government on Friday said in its basic coronavirus policy that a third vaccine shot should boost protection against COVID-19.

On the same day, the Aichi prefectural government announced it would vaccinate about 954,000 people earlier than the initial February-April schedule.

The Iwakuni city government in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Friday began administering booster shots to residents of elderly care facilities, before the planned mid-January start.

Yamaguchi is among three prefectures where quasi-emergency measures were scheduled to start Sunday.

Not enough time

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry advisory body has stressed the need to expedite booster campaigns for elderly people who are at high risk of becoming severely ill.

However, the rapid spread of the infection has made it difficult for some local governments to keep up with preparations.

Coronavirus cases have surged in Okinawa Prefecture since the beginning of the year. The Naha city government has decided to offer boosters mainly to elderly people who are not residents of nursing care homes and other facilities in early February ahead of the initial schedule.

The city government considered offering boosters even sooner because of the current infection situation, but said it would have been difficult to rearrange the distribution of vaccination vouchers.

“We want to carry out the vaccinations as soon as possible, but it’s physically challenging,” a city government official said.