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The New York Ballroom at the Tokyo American Club (TAC) is no stranger to special events, but this summer it’s home to an extraordinary display of community spirit.

On July 5, TAC opened its doors as an official vaccination center for all Minato Ward residents with the goal of vaccinating upward of 60,000 against COVID-19. As of today, the club has given out more than 40,000 first and second doses, a number that accounts for around 25% of the ward’s 160,000 vaccinated residents.

The entirety of the basement ballroom has been retrofitted to accommodate roughly 1,700 visitors at a time, in addition to 150 volunteer doctors, dentists and nurses, as well as other organizers and administrators. This impromptu health center operates five days a week, apart from Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. with a 90-minute break from 1:30 p.m.

Partners in the pandemic: Naoko Fleming and Sam Rogan put their heads together and were able to turn the New York Ballroom at the Tokyo American Club into a vaccination center to help inoculate Minato Ward residents against COVID-19. | YUUKI IDE
Partners in the pandemic: Naoko Fleming and Sam Rogan put their heads together and were able to turn the New York Ballroom at the Tokyo American Club into a vaccination center to help inoculate Minato Ward residents against COVID-19. | YUUKI IDE

So, how did a nearly century-old members-only institution become a medical command center in the war on COVID-19? Enter Sam Rogan and Naoko Fleming. Back in May, they were seeing news reports of vaccinations taking place overseas and, like many of their fellow TAC members, had started feeling anxious that such programs had not yet kicked into high gear in Japan. So, the pair set out to be a part of the solution.

Wading into the confusing bureaucratic world of the Japanese health system was not an easy feat, even for Rogan, a seasoned executive in the semiconductor industry.

He tells The Japan Times that at first, he thought, “I am a Hawaii resident, could I just call the governor of Hawaii and ask if we could have access to their surplus vaccines?” He soon learned that was wishful thinking.

“I then called up the different vaccine makers to try and get some clarity on importing vaccines from overseas, but I wasn’t getting anywhere,” Rogan says. “Then, one of our members here, a senior executive from one of the vaccine makers, put me in touch with who he called ‘the baroness of vaccines’ within the pharmaceutical company.”

He says that “the baroness” informed him that, in Japan, the issue was not supply but deployment. If he wanted to help out he was going to have to contact his ward office.

So, Rogan walked down to the Minato Ward office and asked who was in charge of the vaccine rollout. After speaking with them, they told him that TAC would be able to help out by being designated a large-scale vaccination center. He was immediately put in touch with someone higher up the chain.

“Once I explained to them what we were trying to do, they got really excited and asked me to come meet them that same day,” Rogan says, adding that after a look at the logistics, a plan to create a large-scale center began to form. “Within a week and a half from that meeting, and after the ward sent a few delegations to the club, we had all the approvals we needed and were ready to go.”

The club’s board of governors voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal and Rogan, 54, and Flemming, 50, were appointed chair and vice-chair of the operation.

“Japan loves systems,” says Flemming, a registered dentist whose knowledge of the medical landscape here was vital to navigating the launch of the center. “If the person at the top is not willing to act, then there is no action. Those at the top have all the authority, and they are very important to systemic action in Japan. Because Sam was very cooperative and understanding of the system, we were able to succeed with this challenging project.”

Rogan notes that it took seven weeks to go from initial contact with the ward office to the first vaccination of a resident. “By Japanese standards, that is very fast,” he says.

He is also quick to recognize the efforts of fellow TAC members in this endeavor.

“The women from the main charitable wing of the club, Connections, run by Olivia Smith, have been instrumental in the task of recruiting doctors and staff, many of whom are club members themselves,” he says, stressing that everyone involved is a volunteer.

Rogan explains that members working on a volunteer basis is what makes the club’s status as a vaccination center special. The Tokyo American Club is registered as an NPO, and in this capacity has built a deep relationship with the community and the municipal officials in a way that most other vaccination centers have not.

“We are not a typical (vaccination) center in the fact that we are not doing a transaction with the ward,” says Rogan. “The facility is given for free. If we were to charge the city full rent for having this space open and running like we are — along with the freezers running, the lights on, the wear and tear of 60,000 people coming through this space — it would have cost the city about $3.4 million.”

Easy does it: Minato Ward resident Neil Butler said the vaccination process at the Tokyo American Club was smooth and he is looking forward to his second jab. | YUUKI IDE
Easy does it: Minato Ward resident Neil Butler said the vaccination process at the Tokyo American Club was smooth and he is looking forward to his second jab. | YUUKI IDE

So far, the community in Minato Ward has been happy to have TAC to turn to.

“It was great to have my vaccination here in the center of town at Tokyo American Club,” says Minato Ward resident Neil Butler. “The procedure was really good and I am looking forward to coming back for the second shot.”

Butler was in line for a vaccination on the first day of operations. Also in line the first day was TAC member Lori Arnet.

“I had been watching the news and hearing from family and friends (overseas) that they were all vaccinated. But my preference was to be vaccinated here in Tokyo, where I live,” she says. “I was expecting it to be confusing, but it was very well-organized. It was easy to follow the signs through each station in the process. Having an English-speaking doctor was an extra bonus.

“By the time I received my second vaccine, many improvements had been made to increase the speed and efficiency of the process.”

Moving forward, Rogan says he has three “definitions of success” that he would like to achieve with the vaccination effort. The first is to get as many Minato residents as possible vaccinated, noting that the rules they are working with currently mean that the program is restricted to ward residents.

“We’ve done a lot, and we feel that meets our first definition of success,” he says.

The second definition of success is to get the club’s staff and contractors vaccinated. Rogan says everyone in that group who wanted a vaccination has now received one.

“The third definition of success has been getting our members vaccinated,” he says. “As it turns out, 51.3% of our members live in Minato, so they are covered.” Members living outside of Minato Ward can’t currently receive a vaccine at Tokyo American Club, but Rogan hopes this might change.

Michael Benner, the Tokyo American Club’s Representative Governor, is pleased that the club has been able to help out.

“We are extremely proud for Tokyo American Club to be able to play a role in this essential vaccination drive,” he says. “Community support has been a core value of the club since its founding, and this partnership with Minato Ward to vaccinate 60,000 people is a great new chapter of this volunteer tradition.”

For more information, visit the Tokyo American Club online.

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