Tamio Hayashi, 77, doubted he could ever navigate the internet systems set up to register for COVID-19 vaccines in most parts of Japan.
He hated the idea of using the “problematic” systems that collapsed and confused other elderly residents and hampered Japan’s vaccination surge.
Fortunately, local officials in his small northeastern town helped him overcome red tape, and he got his shots – a rarity in Japan, where authorities vaccinate the vulnerable elderly population in just six weeks before the start of the Summer Olympics.
“This trail is great,” Hayashi told Reuters after he and his wife received their second dose at a local high school. “You only get one notification that says, come to this and the day.”
Soma, a rural town 150 miles north of Tokyo devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, has beaten vaccinations against most of the country by learning from the lessons of the disaster a decade ago.
Japan lags far behind other advanced economies in vaccinating its population – 12% have received at least one vaccination compared to France, the second lowest in the Seven Industrial Powers group at 42% and the most advanced, Canada at 63%, according to a Reuters tracker .
Soma’s nimble, homemade approach eschews the reservation systems and fragmented efforts common across Japan. The city has vaccinated 84% of its elderly – up from around 28% nationwide – it is now injecting younger generations and aims to reach people 16 and older by the end of July, just as the Olympics begin.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga wants Japan’s elderly population fully vaccinated through July and all adults through November. However, this requires an increase in the number of shots to a million per day from the previous peak of around 700,000.
Part of Soma’s success is due to its small population of 35,000, which makes it easier to reach the people of the Pacific coast city in Fukushima Prefecture than the overstretched medical staff in the vast urban areas.
But the city is also thriving where much of Japan was unsuccessful due to the painful lessons of the tsunami that killed 450 of the city’s residents as it swept 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) inland.
“PEOPLE COME TOGETHER”
This disaster taught Soma the importance of developing and communicating clear plans, working closely with local medical professionals, gathering affected people in concentrated places – and not waiting for a plan from Tokyo – said Vice Mayor Katsuhiro Abe.
“I don’t know if you’d say we couldn’t have done this without the earthquake disaster,” Abe said. “But this vaccination program comes in conjunction with the experience of the city government and the people who have come together over those 10 years to deal with it.”
Japan avoided the huge COVID-19 case numbers and death toll in many countries, but its started in mid-February Introduction of vaccines was later than most and was initially hampered by scarce supplies of imported vaccines.
The distribution was then uneven as the reservation systems collapsed or confused the elderly who had priority for recordings.
Soma executives and doctors began making plans and doing vaccination exercises in December, months before the vaccines were approved, based on lessons learned in 2011.
The city set up a central vaccination center to save medical staff. Residents were called by city block, no reservation required, and the city sent buses for those who couldn’t travel alone.
After the previous disaster, Soma’s neighbors know they need to look out for each other while city officials are used to switching from office work to crisis management, said Abe, a lifelong resident of Soma.
City dwellers are quickly taken to waiting areas and demonstrations, then to a separate area for their recordings.
If some elderly patients got nervous when asked to turn left or right to take their shots, the staff improvised with cartoon posters on the walls: face the rabbit for a syringe in the right arm, turn to the pooch, to get it in the left arm.
“The strategy needs to be tailored to each local culture and context,” said Kenji Shibuya, who resigned as director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London this spring to further Soma’s COVID-19 vaccination drive.
“It’s a war,” said Shibuya, a staunch critic of the Japanese way of dealing with the pandemic.
He said the best the government could do is give communities a steady supply of vaccines and supplies – and leave the rest to the local people.
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