The government has formally decided to expand its program to provide fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses to cover health care workers and staff at facilities for the elderly.
We see no reason to take exception to the measure as it is aimed at reducing the risk of patients and elderly people becoming infected at hospitals and nursing care facilities. But workers at these facilities are already preoccupied with dealing with the latest explosion in cases, seen by experts as the seventh wave in the pandemic. Given that some experts already called on the government to consider an expansion of the program in late May, it is hard to deny that the decision came a little too late.
One major and complicated question facing policymakers has been whether the benefits of an additional vaccine shot for presumably limited effectiveness in preventing infections and symptoms outweigh the downsides due to potential side effects.
Two months have passed since fourth vaccine doses started being provided, initially only to people aged 60 or older. But only 40 percent of those in that age bracket have received their fourth jabs. Many Japanese, especially young people, have yet to receive their third shots. It is vital to ensure that everybody who wishes to receive a vaccine can get their jab swiftly, irrespective of their vaccination status.
The decision to expand the program was formalized July 22, about a week after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the plan on July 14. It came after preparations were being made to expand the program and the plan was presented to a health ministry panel of experts for consideration.
It is hardly surprising that some members of the panel voiced questions about their role.
While the prime minister has changed twice since the pandemic began, from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga and then to Kishida, the roles and responsibilities of experts in relation to political leaders have not been clearly defined. The situation serves only to deepen mutual distrust between experts and politicians.
Many members of the panel have called for fourth vaccine doses also to be provided to teachers and childcare workers as fresh outbreaks have been reported at many schools and day care centers. We urge the government to take the call seriously and start considering the proposal immediately.
The health ministry also decided to start administering an Omicron-specific vaccine being developed by a U.S. drugmaker to elderly people in autumn or later. Some people may want to wait for the new vaccine instead of receiving their fourth doses now. It is important to offer detailed information about currently authorized shots and the expected Omicron-targeted vaccine.
The past two winters during the pandemic saw steeper surges in infections than during the summer periods. The government needs to take proactive measures to prepare for the coming winter while keeping open the possibility of a simultaneous wave of seasonal flu cases.
The period of required self-isolation for close contacts has been shortened to five days from seven. The step was taken to maintain necessary levels of social and economic activities. But the change has bewildered many people since it was made in the middle of a rapid rise in new cases.
Although many medical institutions have welcomed the change as a step to ease manpower shortages they are facing, the seventh wave has been marked by an alarmingly large number of cases involving healthcare workers. That has translated into greater numbers of close contacts than in the past.
Some people are voicing concerns that the shortening of the self-insolation period could increase the risk of cluster infections.
The government should offer meticulous explanations about its policy decisions concerning the pandemic so that those working in fields that put them at risk can accurately understand the aims and implications of the new measures being taken and ensure stable supplies of test kits to determine whether they can continue working.