As Japan prepares to allow paramedics to give COVID-19 vaccines to help accelerate the country’s sluggish rollout campaign, fire departments, which employ the majority of paramedic license holders, are discussing how to respond.

Since the nation’s medical system remains under severe strain, one proposal would see around 12,000 “latent paramedics” working at fire departments — those who possess licenses but are currently assigned to nonmedical duties — be encouraged to step forward.

Japan launched its inoculation drive in February for health care workers and later expanded it to people age 65 or older.

But as the country battles its fourth wave of coronavirus infections, Japan has so far administered at least one dose to only about 6% of its population of 126 million.

In an effort to speed things up, the government has already conditionally allowed trainee doctors and dentists to join doctors and nurses in administering shots.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration is now hoping to draft in paramedics and clinical laboratory technicians, too, although Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said they should not join the inoculation effort at the expense of their normal duties.

Japan plans to have paramedics give COVID-19 vaccine shots to accelerate the country's lagging rollout. | KYODO
Japan plans to have paramedics give COVID-19 vaccine shots to accelerate the country’s lagging rollout. | KYODO

Some 40,000 of the 64,000 certified paramedics in the country are employed by fire departments, with around 12,000 of them working in nonmedical areas.

The Sakai City Fire Bureau in Osaka Prefecture, for instance, has around 200 certified paramedics, but roughly a quarter of them are not involved in emergency services.

A 46-year-old male official with a paramedic’s license who now works in the personnel section at the department was keen to lend a hand.

“It is our duty to help out as much as possible,” he said.

Elsewhere, some paramedics were more cautious, saying that since giving injections is an unfamiliar task for them, the government needs to create an environment in which they can feel confident in joining the inoculation drive.

A 31-year-old male paramedic in Osaka Prefecture wants the government to determine “who would take responsibility in case of an accident.”

At the same time, however, he hailed the move to get medical professionals other than doctors involved in the vaccine drive, as has been done overseas.

Tetsuji Suzuki, the chairman of the Japanese Paramedics Association, estimates that another pool of some 5,000 to 8,000 “latent paramedics” can be found among those with licenses who are not working for fire departments or hospitals.

In recent years, there has been a movement to deploy licensed paramedics to leisure facilities, but in reality, actually performing paramedic duties is limited to those in fire departments.

Suzuki, who is also a professor at Suzuka University of Medical Science, says the government needs to show flexibility and strong leadership and prepare training programs for “latent paramedics.”

It would be a “waste of a treasure” and “society’s loss” if those with licenses cannot respond to the current emergency, Suzuki said, urging the government to make all-out efforts to achieve this.

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