• staff report, Kyodo, Jiji

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Japan confirmed a record 2,973 daily coronavirus infections on Thursday, further raising concern over the strain on the medical system as the country continues to grapple with a spike in infections.

As the nationwide tally hit a record for the second day in a row, a panel of medical experts advising the health ministry on its coronavirus response said cases have started to increase in areas that had been free of clusters, including Hiroshima, Kochi and Fukuoka prefectures.

In a statement, the experts called on the public to “cooperate in having a quiet holiday, without causing infections to expand through year-end and New Year parties and visits to hometowns.”

On Wednesday, the daily count came to 2,812. Twelve new COVID-19 fatalities were confirmed on Thursday, including five in Hokkaido. The number of seriously ill patients fell by 12 from the previous day to 543 as of Thursday, the health ministry said.

Tokyo confirmed a record 602 new infection cases. The previous record for the capital was 584, marked on Saturday. People in their 30s made up the largest group of the cases confirmed Thursday, at 137, followed by 135 in their 20s and 111 in their 40s, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. People aged 65 or over accounted for 77 cases.

Chiba Prefecture logged a record 151 new infection cases. At a high school in the city of Funabashi, 46 students and teachers have tested positive for the virus, including 36 members of its boys basketball club.

New cases also hit a record high in Saitama Prefecture, at 188, Gifu Prefecture, at 45, Kochi Prefecture, at 20, and Oita Prefecture, at 25.

A panel of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government monitoring the pandemic assessed that it has become “difficult” for hospitals to provide usual health care services and treatment for COVID-19 patients at the same time.

“The medical system has started to become strained, and preventing an increase of new patients and those with severe symptoms is the top priority,” the panel said.

Last month, the metropolitan government raised its virus alert to the highest of four levels, and requested that restaurants and other establishments serving alcohol close at 10 p.m. until Dec. 17. Tokyo is the hardest-hit of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

However, Masataka Inokuchi, a vice head of the Tokyo Medical Association, told reporters that it is unclear whether calls for shorter business hours at such establishments had been effective.

Large cities in Hokkaido as well as urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka have been seeing rising coronavirus cases since November, which has been described by medical experts as a third wave of infections in Japan.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s virus response, said on Nov. 25 that “the next three weeks will be critical” to prevent the spread of the virus and to protect the country’s medical system.

The government of Hokkaido decided Thursday to request residents to refrain from making unnecessary outings until Dec. 25 in the cities of Sapporo and Asahikawa, which have seen a strain on their health care systems.

Gov. Naomichi Suzuki said while it is “painful” to make such a request, the measure taken is meant “to protect the lives and health of the Hokkaido people.”

The decision was made a day after nurses from the country’s Ground Self-Defense Force started working at facilities in Asahikawa, after being dispatched to the city to help it cope with a shortage of health care staff.

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