With over 100 new cases recorded for six straight days in Tokyo, it might seem like the bad old days of the pandemic. The rise has some asking when the government will again declare a state of emergency.

But this isn’t April, when businesses shut their doors and workers stayed home, and government officials argue that another emergency declaration isn’t necessary for now.

While some countries have responded to a resurgence of infections with stricter measures — Australia’s second-largest city plunging into lockdown for the second time in four months, and Beijing confining whole neighborhoods to their homes to bring an outbreak under control — Tokyo is taking a more muted approach, arguing that this time is different.

A look at the data goes some way to supporting that.

As of Monday, the ratio of cases in Tokyo in which the infection path can’t be identified stood at 39 percent, compared with more than 70 percent at the height of the pandemic.

That’s significant because contact tracing and cluster-busting has been the core of the nation’s response to the novel coronavirus — identifying and shutting down locations where multiple people were infected, and aggressively testing those linked to these clusters.

Another crucial difference is the age group. Nearly half of those infected in Tokyo since May 25, when the state of emergency was lifted, are in their 20s and less likely to fall severely ill than elderly patients.

Cases have predominantly affected what authorities have euphemistically referred to as the “yoru no machi” — nighttime entertainment districts that house host clubs, “girl’s bars” and various levels of prostitution.

The mortality rate also reflects the lower likelihood of younger patients dying from the virus. Of the almost 1,000 virus deaths in the nation, just five were people in their 20s and 30s while more than half were in their 80s or older — the most vulnerable group in Japan’s graying society.

Deaths are a lagging indicator of the scale of the infection, and hospitalizations have begun to increase in Tokyo. The number of those in treatment has doubled to more than 400 as of Monday, after falling to as low as around 200.

However, those listed as serious — requiring treatment in an ICU or with a ventilator — are still just a small fraction. There were only eight such cases in Tokyo as of Tuesday, the lowest since the government began tracking the data in late April. The capital hasn’t reported a death from COVID-19 in two weeks.

Last month Tokyo revised its method of monitoring the state of virus infections to place more emphasis on the capacity of the medical system to handle more patients.

In a reflection of Tokyo’s shift to more virus testing, the positive test rate has plunged through May and June — though it has slightly ticked up again over the past week. The capital is currently conducting an average of about 2,000 tests a day, with mass testing of host clubs in the Shinjuku area.

The city previously tested only those with symptoms. Experts including Tohoku University Prof. Hitoshi Oshitani chose to deliberately limit testing, citing the experience of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 which led to cases spreading at hospital waiting rooms as well as the low accuracy of initial testing kits. This decision has even been hailed as one of the reasons for the country’s success in containing the initial pandemic.

Targeted testing has contributed to identifying more cases, but medical facilities are not under pressure from the pathogen, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of coordinating the nation’s coronavirus response, over the weekend.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.