The Japanese and U.S. governments are considering obliging all U.S. military personnel entering Japan to undergo polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests for the new coronavirus, Defense Minister Taro Kono said Friday.
The measure is under consideration following the spread of COVID-19 infections at U.S. bases in Japan.
The mandatory PCR tests are planned to be conducted on U.S. military personnel assigned to bases in Japan, civilian workers at such bases and their family members, when they leave the United States and when they enter Japan.
Currently, such U.S. military-related people spend a two-week quarantine period before and after directly entering U.S. bases in Japan aboard military aircraft, chartered planes or other transportation. But they do not undergo PCR tests unless they have coronavirus symptoms.
Meanwhile, Japan conducts PCR testing for U.S. military personnel entering Japan aboard commercial flights.
There are some people who travel without noticing that they are infected with the virus because they have no symptoms, Kono said, underlining the need for conducting PCR tests to prevent infected people with no symptoms from entering Japan.
Concerns over the spread of the virus are growing among residents in Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, as cluster infections occurred among U.S. military personnel stationed in the prefecture.
Meanwhile, a local taxi driver in his 80s was confirmed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, possibly through a customer belonging to a U.S. Marine base where dozens of cases have been reported, the Okinawa Prefectural Government said Thursday.
Among passengers of the taxi driven by the man living in the city of Okinawa was at least one person related to U.S. Marine Corps Camp Hansen, where 58 coronavirus cases have been reported, according to the prefectural government.
A prefectural government official said the taxi driver developed a fever Tuesday and tested positive the following day. He visited the base at least once between July 4 and 8.
In addition to the base, 73 cases have been linked to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, with another five confirmed at Kadena Air Base, and one each at Camp McTureous and Camp Kinser. The total number of cases confirmed at U.S. military bases in Okinawa reached 138, according to the prefectural government.
Gov. Denny Tamaki urged local residents who attended parties with U.S. military personnel in downtown areas and at beaches around July 4 to celebrate Independence Day to seek medical advice if they feel unwell.
The taxi driver's case is the first infection among local residents who had come into contact with on-base personnel this month.
The prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, has so far reported 149 coronavirus cases including the taxi driver among the general population. The tally does not include the U.S. military personnel infections.
On Thursday, Tamaki requested at a news conference that U.S. forces verify whether they have adequately implemented virus control measures such as a two-week quarantine.
The governor traveled to Tokyo on Wednesday to relay concerns over the on-base virus outbreaks, calling for the U.S. military to suspend transfers to Okinawa as soon as possible and conduct PCR tests on all incoming personnel.
U.S. military personnel who arrive in Japan on commercial flights must take PCR tests. But those who fly directly to a base and are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 are not required to, according to a Foreign Ministry official.
Tamaki also called for a review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which exempts American troops from the Japanese quarantine guidelines. Military personnel are immune to Japan's entry ban imposed on civilian U.S. nationals due to the pandemic.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Thursday that the central government and U.S. forces are cooperating to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.
Okinawa accounts for about 70 percent of the total acreage exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan, despite the prefecture only representing 0.6 percent of the country's land.
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