• Kyodo

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The government started vaccinating older people against COVID-19 on Monday, making them the second group to be inoculated, following health care workers, as concerns over a fourth wave of the pandemic grow.

Authorities are planning to secure enough shots of the vaccine, developed by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., for roughly 36 million people age 65 or older and deliver them to municipalities by late June.

Those people, who compose around 29% the population, tend to develop more serious symptoms than others when infected with the virus.

A total of 1,139 seniors received COVID-19 shots on the first day of the vaccination drive targeting that particular age group, the government said.

“We will work to complete (the vaccination program for older people) as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday at the Diet.

The vaccinations come amid growing concern about a resurgence of infections in some areas, including Tokyo as well as Osaka and Kyoto prefectures, after the country fully lifted a second state of emergency over the virus last month.

The central government has designated prefectures with surging cases as requiring tough measures to control its spread, but has stopped short of declaring a third state of emergency — apparently hoping to avoid complicating efforts to host the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

The torch relay for the Olympics began in Japan several days after the end of the second state of emergency.

With the medical system under increasing strain amid a resurgence of infections, there is concern that doctors and nurses may not be able to keep up with the vaccination schedule.

Local governments in at least 39 of the nation’s 47 prefectures were scheduled to start vaccinating older residents Monday at clinics as well as facilities such as public halls and gymnasiums, according to a Kyodo News tally.

Vaccine deliveries to prefectures started last week with 100 boxes, each enough for two shots for 500 people. Each prefecture received two boxes, except for the more populous Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures which each received four.

It is expected the rollout will gather pace from the final week of April, when all 1,741 municipalities in the nation will have received one box.

Japan launched its vaccination program in mid-February, starting with about 4.8 million health care workers.

The Pfizer vaccine is administered twice, three weeks apart. As of Friday 1.1 million people had received at least one shot, according to health ministry data, which is equivalent to less than 1% of Japan’s population.

Elderly people in villages and cities expressed relief at having received their shots. At a clinic in the village of Kitaaiki in Nagano Prefecture, 100-year-old Kesaku Takamizawa was the first person to receive a shot.

“All the worry that I carried inside my head is gone,” he said after showing no adverse reaction following his shot.

His daughter-in-law, Yumiko, 67, was vaccinated next. She said that her daughters, who reside in the Tokyo metropolitan area, might now feel more comfortable about coming to see her again. “I hope that (as we have) taken this vaccine, my daughters will be able to visit,” she said with a smile.

In Hachioji, a city in Tokyo currently under a quasi-state of emergency, three doctors and six nurses were at the ready in the city hall for people who had made appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. “I thought it would hurt more, but it wasn’t the case. I am thankful that I was one of the first,” said Yoshitaka Akatsuka, 74. Reservations for the first 1,900 doses offered by Hachioji were filled within 90 minutes, the city said.

Nagasaki is prioritizing nursing homes that have high numbers of people who need extensive care. It plans to send out doctors to vaccinate around 1,900 people in 30 facilities.

A home for victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing in the city is planning to vaccinate around 300 residents within three days. “Those vaccinated seemed relieved. We would like to start considering how to resume family visits, which have been suspended due to the pandemic,” said Fusayo Tsutsumi, director of the home.

The vaccination rate in the nation, which currently depends on imports for its vaccine supply, is far behind that seen in the U.K. and United States, and below the global average of 5%.

After the vaccination of people age 65 or over, people with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, and those working at facilities caring for older people are slated to be inoculated next, after which vaccines will eventually be made available to the rest of the population.

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