TOKYO — As Olympics host Tokyo saw another record number of coronavirus cases Wednesday, Japan’s vaccination minister said the speed of the country's inoculation campaign is less urgent than getting shots to young people, who some health experts are blaming for the current surge in infections.
Vaccination Minister Taro Kono told The Associated Press that Japan is “overshooting” its goal of a million shots a day, so “speed doesn't matter anymore.” Japan is averaging about 10 million shots a week after a late start.
"Even if we slow down a little bit, I’m OK. Rather we need to reach out to the younger people, so that they would feel that it’s necessary for them to get vaccinated,” Kono said, speaking in English during an interview in his office.
Many in Japan fear that the tens of thousands of visitors allowed special entry for the Olympics will cause more huge spikes in cases or a new variant of the coronavirus.
Tokyo reported 3,177 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, an all-time high for the city and the first time it exceeded 3,000 infections in a day. The new cases exceeded the earlier record of 2,848 set Tuesday and bring the total for the Japanese capital to 206,745 since the pandemic began early last year.
Japan has so far kept its cases and deaths lower than many other countries. But its vaccination campaign started very late in comparison to other large economies, and there is fear that rising cases could overwhelm hospitals.
Tokyo is under its fourth state of emergency, which will last through the Olympics and into the Paralympics next month. Experts had earlier warned that the more contagious delta variant could cause a surge during the Olympics, which started Friday.
Health experts have noted that cases among younger, unvaccinated people are rising sharply. While about two-thirds of Wednesday’s cases were people in their 30s or below, people in their 50s now dominate Tokyo’s nearly 3,000 hospitalized patients and are gradually filling up available beds. Authorities reportedly plan to ask medical institutions to increase their capacity to about 6,000.
Dr. Ryuji Wakita, director general of the National Institute of Infections Diseases and head of a government advisory board, said vaccination progress has been limited mostly to elderly people, while younger people are still largely unprotected. Emergency measures should be firmly exercised, he said, to prevent the further spread of the virus during the Olympics and the summer vacation season.
Wakita acknowledged that the rise of serious cases is modest compared to the sharp increase of daily cases, but even so, the ongoing surge could cause younger and unvaccinated patients who overflow from hospitals to develop serious cases while being left at home and untreated.
“The younger generations are largely unvaccinated, and that’s why those in their 40s and 50s are increasingly getting infected and being hospitalized,” he said. “The level of vaccinations in Japan has not reached a state where we can easily permit the number of infections to rise.”