The nation reported yet another record-breaking number of new COVID-19 cases Thursday as a surge in infections that began in late October continues to spread across the country.
New daily cases nationwide totaled a record 2,388 as of Thursday evening, NHK reported, 534 of which had been reported in Tokyo by midafternoon.
Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he had urged prefectural governors to call on residents using the Go To Eat campaign — a government program meant to bolster the struggling food industry — to dine-in groups of four people or less.
“I’m asking everyone again to take basic precautions — wearing masks and avoiding the ‘three Cs,’” Suga said, referring to closed spaces, crowds and close-contact settings. “I’m also asking people to wear masks when they talk while dining out.”
Suga said he had instructed Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the country’s response to the novel coronavirus, and health minister Norihisa Tamura to put forward more effective countermeasures.
In the capital, the unprecedented number of new cases forced the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to raise its virus alert status Thursday to its fourth and highest level. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike called for stronger measures to prevent the emergence of severe cases of COVID-19.
“New cases are increasing at a concerning pace, a growing number of which are asymptomatic or occurring among the elderly,” Koike said during a meeting of the metropolitan government’s coronavirus task force.
“As we approach year-end, I urge residents and businesses to take all possible steps so that together we can stop the virus from spreading further,” she said.
Koike also said that the city should make further use of hotels to temporarily house mild or asymptomatic patients, and that event organizers should avoid hosting events that might involve people speaking loudly or eating.
Tokyo’s report of 534 new cases Thursday exceeded 500 infections in a day for the first time, raising the record it had set only a day before with 493 cases Wednesday, as the virus continues to spread throughout the country in what experts have described as a third wave. As of Thursday, the capital had recorded 36,256 infections in total and 476 deaths.
In April, when a state of emergency was declared across seven prefectures including the capital by the central government, the city issued voluntary business closure requests. The central government order was extended 10 days later to the rest of the country before being lifted in late May.
Tokyo then lowered its alert status to the second-highest level on Sept. 10, reporting 276 new cases that day.
The spread of the virus appeared to hit a plateau in the weeks that followed but began to accelerate in late October, with cases on the rise ever since.
From late October, several prefectures across the nation have been experiencing a record-breaking surge in infections. On Wednesday, 2,203 cases were reported across the country, exceeding 2,000 in a single day for the first time and bringing the national totals for the day to more than 124,000 infections and 1,947 deaths.
New cases have been rising sporadically but steadily in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka, Nagoya, Aichi, Hokkaido, Hyogo and Ibaraki prefectures, among others.
During a news conference Wednesday, Nishimura emphasized the need to bolster safety measures at restaurants and other food establishments where a number of cluster infections have emerged in recent weeks.
The ongoing surge in infections has also cast doubt upon the safety of the Go To Travel campaign, an ongoing government initiative created to resuscitate the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel.
When the campaign began, in late July, Tokyo was excluded as it was in the midst of a sharp uptick in new infections. The capital joined on Oct. 1 after officials deemed it safe.
As of Tuesday, the government had received reports of 155 travelers who used discounts through the campaign being infected with COVID-19, while 144 staff from hotels who participated in the tourism program were also infected, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.
For a city, prefecture or region to be removed from the campaign, local officials must first raise its alert level to “Stage 3” according to criteria set forth by the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee.
During a news conference Wednesday, Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa said that although it was unclear whether the travel campaign was responsible for the surge in new cases, it “surely acted as a catalyst.”
“It’s crucial that people don’t become complacent,” Nakagawa stressed. “The virus can be stopped from spreading further through the sum of our collective actions.”
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