National / Science & Health

Spreading clusters of coronavirus cases worry Japan's local governments

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

While the national government drive forward legal revisions to allow the declaration of a national emergency over the COVID-19 virus as early as this week, local governments are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of the novel coronavirus in so-called clusters.

Experts say that small, cramped and poorly ventilated spaces where crowds gather for long periods of time in close proximity raise the risk of infection, and the development of clusters of cases. They have asked people to avoid such places if possible and not to go if they feel ill.

In Osaka, four small live music venues that held concerts from Feb. 15 to Feb. 24 appear to have facilitated the spread of the virus to other parts of the country. Osaka Prefecture reported 73 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday night. Of that total, over a dozen of those infected were confirmed to have either been at one of the four music clubs last month or come into close contact with someone else who did.

As of Monday evening, Osaka Prefecture was reporting that some concertgoers who became infected at the venues later traveled to Kyoto, Tokyo, Sapporo, Kobe and Nara, as well as at least seven other prefectures. The exact number of attendees at the four venues where the clusters of infections developed is not yet known. Osaka is asking anyone who was there on the specified dates to notify prefectural health authorities.

Other local governments have also reported small clusters. In Sapporo’s Susukino district, which is home to many small bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs, 10 people at one bar had infections confirmed as of early Wednesday, including both customers and staff.

Another cluster of infections may have developed in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. Authorities reported that an elderly man in his 80s died on Monday due to pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus. He had been treated at a local hospital where five other people have also been found to have the virus.

In Nagoya, where two clusters have been reported, 36 people were infected in a gym in the city, as of Tuesday evening, while 45 people became infected after the virus spread from a patient at a hospital to nursing care facilities. The total confirmed cases in Aichi Prefecture reached at least 102 on Wednesday, the second prefecture to top 100 after Hokkaido.

Nobuhiko Okabe, who worked for the World Health Organization in the 1990s and is now head of a health and safety research center in Kawasaki, told reporters at the Japan Press Club on Tuesday that while a number of local clusters have been reported, it’s not yet a countrywide pandemic.

“To use the example of gardening, it’s like finding a few poisonous buds among the weeds,” he said.

On Tuesday, a government panel of experts on communicable diseases said that the cancellation or postponement of large events should continue for another 10 days to prevent rapid spread of the infection. But they also warned that measures to battle COVID-19 — which has so far infected over 1,300 and killed at least 20 in the nation as of Wednesday evening, including those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship — could last into next year.

“It may take several months to half a year, or even last beyond year-end” as the virus may survive warmer weather, unlike influenza, said Kazuhiro Tateda, a member of the panel and president of the Japanese Association of Infectious Diseases, speaking to reporters on Tuesday.

Information from Kyodo added

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