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Hokkaido is in the midst of a sharp rise in new cases of COVID-19, with other prefectures starting to follow suit in what officials warn could be the beginning of an explosive nationwide surge in new infections.

When the novel coronavirus emerged in Japan earlier this year, Hokkaido was the first region to see a surge in new cases. Having declared its own state of emergency in late February, weeks before the central government imposed one nationwide in April, Hokkaido seemed to foreshadow the spread of the virus across the rest of the country.

That the prefecture is again the first to see a spike in new cases is, in all likelihood, a mere coincidence. But as winter approaches and cold temperatures drive people indoors — where poor air circulation in close quarters could trigger cluster infections and exacerbate the spread of the virus — there may be lessons to be learned once again from the country’s northernmost island.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact circumstances in which new cases are cropping up, residents need to be cautious about the way they spend time indoors and with family as temperatures continue to drop, said Motoya Hayashi, an expert on architectural design and an engineering professor at Hokkaido University’s Laboratory of Environmental Space Design.

New infections each day in Hokkaido since the start of October | KYODO GRAPHIC
New infections each day in Hokkaido since the start of October | KYODO GRAPHIC

“It’s important to bundle up and stay warm during the winter to avoid catching a cold,” he said. “But opening a window to make sure the air in the room is properly circulating could help people avoid becoming infected.”

Hokkaido is one of the coldest regions of Japan, and tends to enter the winter season earlier than the rest of the country. It has already snowed in Hokkaido this season, with the mercury sinking to minus 0.8 Celsius in Sapporo on Tuesday morning.

The prefecture reported 166 new cases Tuesday after logging a record high of 200 cases the day before. Hokkaido has been seeing a steady increase of new infections since late October, bringing its cumulative total of cases to 4,364.

Experts and officials believe new infections in Hokkaido are being caused in part by people spending more time indoors together in poorly ventilated rooms, due to the increasingly cold weather.

According to Koji Wada, a professor in public health at the International University of Health and Welfare and a member of the government’s expert panel on the novel coronavirus, it is a coincidence that Hokkaido was the first prefecture to report a significant uptick in new infections earlier this year and is now leading the country again as the virus resurges.

“However,” he added, “what’s happening up north — and the way officials respond — could serve as a reference for other parts of the country where new cases are beginning to surge again.”

During a meeting of the government’s COVID-19 subcommittee on Monday, Shigeru Omi, who heads the panel and also serves as director of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, warned that new cases in the nation could increase at a rapid pace if countermeasures aren’t taken immediately.

“New infections are certainly on the rise across the country,” Omi said Monday night after the panel’s meeting.

The body has urged the government to increase testing capacity in food establishments where cluster infections have occurred, and to prevent more from occurring in the future.

Language barriers are making it difficult to ensure that countermeasures are having the intended impact in non-Japanese communities, according to the panel, which suggested the government use video-sharing websites to provide multilingual assistance.

Urban centers throughout the country have seen a marked swell in COVID-19 incidence over the past few days. Tokyo reported 293 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the capital’s total to more than 32,700. Osaka, Nagoya, Aichi and Kanagawa prefectures are also experiencing an increase in new cases.

A crosswalk in Sapporo on Monday. Hokkaido is in the midst of a sharp rise in new cases of COVID-19, with other prefectures starting to follow suit. | KYODO
A crosswalk in Sapporo on Monday. Hokkaido is in the midst of a sharp rise in new cases of COVID-19, with other prefectures starting to follow suit. | KYODO

Under the central government’s four-stage scale, used to measure the severity of the domestic outbreak in specific parts of the country, Hokkaido is among several areas that are in Stage 2.

If any city, prefecture or region reaches Stage 3 — which indicates that the virus is spreading rapidly — the panel said it would become necessary to enact stronger measures to limit economic and social activity, by issuing business closure requests and restricting domestic travel. Currently no prefectures are designated Stage 3 or higher.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato hinted Monday afternoon that, should the upward trend continue, the prefecture could reach Stage 3 and be removed from the Go To Travel campaign, the central government’s ongoing effort to promote domestic tourism.

But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tried to play that down on Tuesday, saying the government was not considering excluding Hokkaido from the campaign.

Noting that Japan had recorded 1,000 or more cases for three consecutive days, Suga said Tuesday during a meeting of senior officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that the country needed to deal with the situation immediately.

“To contain the virus and protect people’s lives,” Suga said, “we must increase the country’s testing capacity and send experts to the areas suffering the most infections.”

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