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Benefits of vaccine rollout begin to show in Tokyo infection data

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As the vaccine rollout shifts into top gear, its effect is starting to show in figures in Tokyo, with the coronavirus infection rate plunging for front-line workers and older people — the demographics inoculated first.

Among the 560,000 doctors, nurses and medical staff in the capital, the number infected at hospitals was 46 in May, down from 526 in January, a Tokyo Metropolitan Government official said. New COVID-19 cases among medical staff accounted for 0.2% of the total in May, down from 1.3% in January.

Medical workers’ falling share of infections clearly reflects the progress in vaccinations, said Dr. Tetsuo Nakayama, a project professor at Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences and director of the Japanese Society of Clinical Virology.

New infections among the front-line health care workers are likely to fall further, as the latest figures show that the proportion of medical workers in Tokyo who have completed a two-dose vaccine regimen rose to about 75% this week, up from about 55% at the end of May.

About 4.7 million health care workers nationwide have been given top priority for vaccinations since the rollout of Pfizer Inc.’s shot began on Feb. 17.

“Thanks to a rising vaccination rate among the health care workers, cluster infections at hospitals also seem to have declined,” Nakayama said.

Inoculations have exceeded Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s goal of 1 million doses a day on four days this month, government data showed Thursday, and the benefits have also been reflected in slowing infections among older people, for whom vaccinations began in mid-April, in line with their status as the second priority group.

Just under 52% of the 3.11 million people age 65 and above in Tokyo had received their first shot by Wednesday, while 18% had received their second dose, according to government data. As the number of older people who had received the shots increased, the share of new infections among people age 65 and above declined to 6.3% of overall cases in the week through Monday, a sharp decline from the 21.9% seen in the week through March 29.

A student is given a COVID-19 vaccine at Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo on Monday. With infections among younger people on the rise, the vaccination of that demographic will be key going forward. | KYODO
A student is given a COVID-19 vaccine at Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo on Monday. With infections among younger people on the rise, the vaccination of that demographic will be key going forward. | KYODO

Concerns about new variants, which are said to be more contagious and cause more serious cases, are real, with the alpha variant first discovered in the U.K. making up about 80% of all cases nationwide, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases said last week. It added that the supercontagious delta variant, first identified in India, was also gaining momentum in Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government identified a record 21 daily cases of the delta variant on Tuesday, raising the total confirmed cases of the variant, which is spreading fast overseas, to 111.

The government aims to finish the two-dose regimen for all older people wishing to be vaccinated by the end of July, which is expected to further curb infections among them. While vaccines are credited with bringing about the slowdown in new infections among older people and health care workers, experts are raising concerns about a possible rebound in new cases among younger generations.

Recently, the majority of people who visit hospitals due to possible coronavirus infections are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, while it’s becoming rare to see people in the 60s and above, Nakayama said.

The rate of new infections for Tokyo residents in their 20s, 30s and 40s in the week through Monday was 67.5%, up from 52.4% in the week through March 29, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

With the infection rate for younger people on the rise, vaccinations for those demographics will be the key going forward.

But with false rumors swirling on social media about vaccines, concerns remain that younger people may be more hesitant about getting inoculated.

One of the rumors is that the genetic material used in vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna Inc., called messenger RNA, alters DNA. But mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell, where DNA is kept, and it breaks down after the mRNA gives the instructions to make a spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus, which the immune system recognizes and then makes antibodies against.

“The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks for people age 20 and over, as the approved vaccines are highly effective,” Nakayama said.

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