• KYODO, REUTERS

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A government panel of experts is warning the nation’s health care system may collapse if the sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases seen recently in urban areas continues.

In a recommendation released after their meeting Wednesday, they stressed the need for people in locations where there is an accelerating spread to keep outings to a minimum.

Even though the country has not seen an explosive increase in infections so far, the health care systems in Tokyo and the four prefectures of Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka and Hyogo are under increased strain, the experts noted, adding that “drastic countermeasures need to be taken as quickly as possible.”

Tokyo confirmed 66 new cases of infection on Wednesday, a day after the capital logged a record daily increase of 78 cases. The total number of infections in Japan topped 3,000 the same day, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined earlier this year near Tokyo.

“Fundamental responses should be made as early as today or tomorrow,” Shigeru Omi, head of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, said at a news conference Wednesday night. He said the medical system could collapse even before an “overshoot” — the term being used in Japan to describe an explosive rise in cases that exceeds hospital capacity.

Abe is facing growing public calls to declare a state of emergency that would give local governors greater powers to tell residents to stay home, close schools and take other steps. But, in practice, the relevant law includes no penalties in most cases.

Many other countries hit by the pandemic have imposed legally binding lockdowns with serious penalties for violators.

Economics Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said infectious disease experts were especially alarmed about medical capacity in Tokyo, and that the country was on the verge of a crisis.

“We must prevent infections from spreading further no matter what. We have come to the edge of edges, to the very brink,” he told reporters.

Omi said that while Japan was not seeing an uncontrolled spike in cases now, more clusters of infections were being reported. This, he said, had caused the supply of medical services to tighten in some areas.

At the news conference, infectious disease experts said that if measures in place now failed to halt secondary infections and those from overseas, a plan B would be needed.

“What we can do is to lock down cities or zones, which means more stringent, more harsh control on movement,” Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura said.

“It may not be possible under the current legislation but we are thinking about the possibility,” he said.

Earlier, Nishiura said that some strained regions could see the same sort of shortage of respirators for severely ill patients experienced elsewhere.

The experts urged areas that have seen sharp spikes in infections over the past week to tell residents to stay home and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has asked residents in the city of nearly 14 million people to stay indoors and avoid restaurants and bars — steps she reiterated on Wednesday.

“People are saying ‘I didn’t think I was infected myself’. I want everyone to share the awareness that one should both protect oneself while also avoiding spreading (the virus),” she told a news conference.

Koike said junior high schools and high schools run by the metropolis would remain closed through May 6 after shutting at the start of March. Schools in other areas should make decisions based on local conditions, the experts said.

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