National / Science & Health

Japanese asked to hunker down through Golden Week as virus numbers grow

by Satoshi Sugiyama

STAFF WRITER

Despite early signs that the number of new COVID-19 cases may be slowing, the government warned residents Wednesday they must continue to stay home and avoid nonessential travel even during the Golden Week holidays, which stretch from later this month to early May, in order to curb new infections.

“I’m alarmed that efforts to decrease (the number of new patients) have been insufficient,” said economic minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who spearheads the government’s coronavirus measures.

Nishimura told reporters after meeting with a panel of experts that it had presented 10 specific plans to dial back human interaction by the desirable 80 percent level — including taking advantage of communication tools to interact online with family members during the upcoming holiday, going on grocery shopping during quieter business hours by oneself or in smaller groups and using takeout or delivery services from restaurants.

Particularly during the holidays, the panel urged people to avoid crowded areas irrespective of whether they would be crossing prefectural borders and to refrain from returning to their homes if that would jeopardize the health of senior citizens, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.

Top government officials held meetings Wednesday afternoon and evening amid concern about mass movement between prefectures — particularly during Golden Week — by people who have grown weary of self-restraint. That could lead to a surge of people visiting tourism spots and other places, causing, they fear, an increase in the number of new infections.

While promoting more social distancing, the panel has also revised the guidelines for expectant mothers and how people should seek help and get tested when they suspect they may have the coronavirus.

People who are experiencing pnemonia-like symptoms, the elderly, or those with pre-existing conditions should not wait to contact doctors to get tested, said Shigeru Omi, the vice chairman of the panel, during a Wednesday evening new conference.

“Don’t wait until two days later,” said Omi. “Get help from day one” when experiencing symptoms such as acute drowsiness, difficulty in breathing or high fever.

The panel also pressed governors to step up their efforts in sharing information in a quick manner, expanding testing capacity and prioritizing patients with serious conditions for immediate hospitalization while facilitating the temporary accommodation of those with mild symptoms in hotels or other facilities.

In addition, the panel expressed its concern about discrimination against health care workers involved in the fight against COVID-19 and their family members. Prejudice against health care workers who treat coronavirus patients is causing some to leave the profession, disrupting a health care system already stretched too thin, Omi warned.

The panel also made proposals to reduce congestion at parks and supermarkets, such as maintaining more distance at cashiers.

The number of daily confirmed cases nationwide was above 500 last week, whereas it has dipped to over 300 this week. More than two weeks have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency covering seven prefectures ravaged by the virus. He extended the emergency declaration to the rest of the nation last week.

The prime minister has been requesting that citizens cut back human-to-human contact by 70 percent to 80 percent, but based on cell phone data collected at major business areas in metropolitan areas across the country that target has yet to be achieved.

Photos posted on social media showed people were still flocking to busy shopping streets in Kichijoji, in the suburbs of Tokyo, and Enoshima, in Kanagawa Prefecture, over the weekend.

To bolster countermeasures against the spread of the virus, Abe’s Cabinet may allow prefectural governors to take a tougher stance on some businesses, such as pachinko parlors, that have not complied with local governments’ requests to temporarily halt operations. Pachinko parlors, where many people tend to congregate in tight spaces, are considered to present a high-risk of transmission.

Under the coronavirus special measures law, prefectural governments can ask businesses to close and reveal the names of those that ignore their requests, essentially shaming them publicly. However, there are no other mechanisms that local governments can use to coerce businesses to shut their doors.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Wednesday morning that the metropolitan government was considering introducing entry restrictions at supermarkets to diffuse crowds. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passed a supplementary budget of about ¥357 billion the same day that incorporates funds to compensate small businesses that comply with its request to shut down.

The metropolitan government will be accepting applications through June 15. A company can receive ¥500,000 for shutting down a business and ¥1 million for closing multiple businesses.

The speed of new infections across the country has slowed down so far this week, in a potentially positive sign that the government’s request to stay inside is proving to be effective.

Tokyo confirmed 132 cases on Wednesday.

The capital has recorded new cases in the triple digits for nine consecutive days, with its total now standing at more than 3,400.

According to data released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, COVID-19 had claimed 81 lives as of Tuesday evening.

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