Japan set a daily record with more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases — including a new high of 493 in the capital — on Wednesday, following reports Tokyo was expected to raise its virus alert to the highest level Thursday amid an ongoing surge of infections.

Prior to Wednesday, record nationwide tallies had been reported for three consecutive days through Saturday, with the figure hitting 1,737 on that day. While the final figure for Wednesday was yet to be confirmed, local media tallies showed the figure had risen above the 2,000 threshold.

But much of the focus has been on the capital and the surge in cases there. While raising the virus alert level, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government may also call on businesses to close early, according to local media reports.

Much like the “Tokyo Alert” activated by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in June, the capital’s four-point alert system is largely symbolic. The alert level, which is changed based on input from experts, is meant to warn residents to exercise further caution but can also signal the announcement of additional virus countermeasures.

Koike is expected to make the announcement during a meeting on Thursday.

The fourth level indicates that “infections are spreading” — a step up from the third level, which means Tokyo believes “infections appear to be spreading.” Tokyo lowered its alert status to the second-highest level on Sept. 10, but new cases in the capital over the past several weeks have apparently forced officials to raise it once again.

Koike has so far made no mention to the media or public that the city will be put into lockdown — in this case a “soft lockdown,” as Japan’s virus laws don’t permit compulsory or punitive measures — or that residents will be asked to avoid nonessential travel within or outside city limits.

The last and only time Koike issued voluntary business closure requests was in April, when the central government declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures, including Tokyo, extending it 10 days later to the rest of the country. The state of emergency was lifted in late May.

Commuters ride a train late Tuesday evening in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI
Commuters ride a train late Tuesday evening in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI

Up until Tuesday, four of the seven days over the prior week had seen a rolling weekly average of more than 300 new cases in Tokyo. Wednesday’s 493 additional cases of COVID-19 brought Tokyo’s total to more than 35,700 infections and 476 deaths.

The capital saw a disproportionate number of infections among the elderly during the first wave of the virus, and young people who had recently patronized hostess clubs and bars during the second — which peaked in April and July, respectively.

The ongoing surge in new cases that began in late October, however, consists of a growing number of infections occurring in clusters traced back to offices, public facilities and households.

Asymptomatic patients, both in sheer number and in proportion to the total number of new infections, are increasing as well.

“New cases in Tokyo are increasing at a remarkable pace,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.

With cases on the rise, there is concern that Tokyo may once again be excluded from the Go To Travel tourism campaign, an ongoing government project aimed at resuscitating the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel.

For Tokyo to be removed from the program, the metropolitan government first needs to raise its alert level to stage 3 under criteria set forth by the government’s coronavirus subcommittee.

People walk through an underpass in Tokyo on Wednesday. | AP
People walk through an underpass in Tokyo on Wednesday. | AP

But Kato added that, at this point in time, Tokyo has not raised the alert level, and nor has the capital asked to exclude itself from the campaign.

“It’s important that the central government continue to work alongside Tokyo to maintain virus prevention measures and support local businesses,” Kato said.

Since Tokyo recorded its first case of COVID-19 in late January, the massive metropolis — which has more than 13.9 million residents — has seen countless countermeasures enforced and lifted in tandem with the ebb and flow of the unpredictable virus.

New infections in Japan have reached record-breaking heights on several occasions in November following an abrupt surge that began in late October.

Hokkaido was the first prefecture to see an uptick in new cases, just as it was in February when it declared its own state of emergency weeks before the central government did so nationwide.

That Hokkaido is reporting new cases before the rest of the county is most likely a coincidence, but the island may serve as a harbinger as winter approaches and cold weather drives people indoors, where bad air circulation in close quarters could trigger cluster infections and further spread the virus.

Unfamiliar aspects of what appears to be a third wave of COVID-19 are forcing officials to reconsider their cluster tracing methods amid the nationwide surge.

During a meeting earlier this month of the central government’s expert coronavirus subcommittee, experts urged the government to increase testing in workplaces and food establishments, where cluster infections occur more frequently, and to provide multilingual assistance to prevent the virus from spreading further in the foreign community.

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