National

From Tokyo to Wakayama to Okinawa, Japan on edge as COVID-19 spreads

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

Japan was on high alert Friday due to the rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide, including that of two taxi drivers and a doctor, as well as the nation’s first death blamed on the virus.

The latest cases bring the number of people who have tested positive in Japan, excluding cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, to at least 39.

The health ministry launched a full-scale investigation into the route of the fatal infection of a Kanagawa Prefecture woman because the case suggests the possibility that it was transmitted domestically.

Elsewhere, Wakayama Prefecture officials made public Friday morning that a man in his 70s was confirmed to have the coronavirus and is in serious condition. He was first admitted to the town of Yuasa’s Saiseikai Arida Hospital, where a doctor in his 50s was confirmed to be infected with the virus on Thursday.

It was not clear whether the man in his 70s, who first showed symptoms on Feb. 1 and checked into the hospital on Feb. 6, had gone overseas before getting sick. He has since been transferred to a different hospital.

Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka rejected the possibility that he got infected in the hospital, noting that the man never had close contact with the doctor, and that the doctor was not working there when the man was hospitalized. Nisaka said he likely picked up the virus before visiting the hospital.

But health minister Katsunobu Kato said the ministry is planning to send a team of infectious disease experts to the hospital, which stopped accepting outpatients Friday morning, to prevent the virus from spreading further. A woman in her 80s in Kanagawa Prefecture who tested positive for the coronavirus died Thursday, marking the first deadly case in Japan. She had not traveled to China before she was diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalized on Feb. 1, according to the health ministry.

The ministry also announced Thursday that two other people — a taxi driver in his 70s residing in Tokyo and reported to be the dead woman’s son-in-law, and a man in his 20s from Chiba Prefecture — tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government said the driver primarily operated within the capital’s 23 special wards and had not picked up any foreign passengers in the 14 days before his symptoms appeared in late January. After the symptoms emerged he stopped working and used either his personal car or a bicycle to go to the doctor’s office while wearing a mask.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials later said that two more people who have ties with the taxi driver in question tested positive.

One is a worker at a local taxi association to which the driver in question belongs and another is an individual who worked on a party boat.

The worker on the party boat reportedly had contact with a traveler from Hubei.

About 80 people from the taxi association, including the driver, attended a boat party on Jan. 18 and 10 of them are showing symptoms, the officials said.

In Okinawa, a female taxi driver was confirmed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus on Friday, the first patient in the Kyushu-Okinawa area.

The rise in confirmed cases domestically suggests Japan’s effort to combat the pneumonia-causing virus has entered the next stage, and that the nation should be bracing for a possible epidemic.

Kato said the health ministry cannot definitively determine whether the coronavirus is an epidemic but warned, “We can’t deny the possibility that it will spread, like infectious diseases in the past.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed Kato’s assessment, telling reporters that the central government “doesn’t have epidemiological information to judge if the coronavirus is prevalent in the country.”

“We’ll be collecting epidemiological information, including infection routes, as soon as possible,” the top government spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, a fifth government-chartered flight to Wuhan, China, which is the capital of Hubei, is scheduled to depart on Sunday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said.

By Friday morning, 199 passengers on the second chartered flight had been cleared of the coronavirus and released from their two-week voluntary quarantine. On Friday, the Cabinet formally adopted a ¥15 billion emergency spending package to help small businesses hit by the outbreak stay afloat and to reinforce medical systems.

The government earmarked ¥2.3 billion to cover the cost of helping the returnees from Wuhan and the people on the quarantined cruise ship; ¥1 billion to finance the development of simple test kits, vaccines and drugs; and ¥450 million to subsidize an increase in mask production.

The government allocated funding to tighten immigration controls and assist in setting up outpatient reception counters for those suspected of being infected with the coronavirus.

“As for the government, we’ll work together with municipalities and accelerate the expansion of testing and treatment abilities to stop the virus from spreading and to prevent the infected people’s conditions from getting worse,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

Information from Kyodo added.

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