Faced with rising numbers of coronavirus cases and a growing shortage of hospital beds, the leaders of the Kansai region have declared a state of emergency for the New Year’s period.

The announcement on Saturday came just a few days after Osaka Prefecture announced its own state of emergency and called on the Self-Defense Forces to dispatch nurses to handle the growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

On Sunday, Osaka Prefecture recorded 251 new infections, ending a streak of five days through Saturday with over 300 new cases. Prefectural hospital beds for seriously ill patients, including coronavirus patients, were 66.9% full as of Saturday, according to the prefectural government.

“A high percentage of those who are infected and seriously ill are elderly, and we have to get that under control,” said Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura at the meeting of the Union of Kansai Governments held in the city of Osaka on Saturday.

Concerned about a spike in infections, and anxious to prevent a collapse of the area’s medical systems, the union’s governors are calling on Kansai residents to avoid returning to their hometowns over the holidays if they can, and to avoid unnecessary travel. People are also being asked to stay away from eating and drinking establishments and to avoid going out if they feel ill.

Traditional year-end parties, as well as events to mark the start of next year, should be canceled, if possible, the union advises. But New Year’s Eve countdown events, shrine visits in the new year, and Coming-of-Age Day celebrations can go ahead if people use caution, it said. No specific starting or finishing date for the declaration was given by the union. Coming-of-Age Day is Jan. 11.

“At a time when the nationwide spread of infections is worsening, the Kansai union, with the same thoughts in mind, issued the declaration as a call to stop the infection from spreading,” Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka, the union’s president, told reporters Saturday.

The union includes Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, Tottori and Tokushima prefectures, as well as the cities of Osaka and Sakai in Osaka Prefecture, the city of Kyoto and Kobe. It represents about 21 million people.

Other Kansai prefectures had already made similar requests before Saturday’s announcement. Last week, Kyoto, which usually draws large numbers from not only Kansai but all over the country during the New Year’s holidays, asked that people stagger their shrine visits and stay away from eating and drinking establishments after 9 p.m.

Kyoto is also concerned about a rise in infections filling its limited number of hospital beds. Late last week, 14 prefectural hospitals advised that residents avoid going out to eat, and, if possible, postpone hospital visits and even surgeries due to the need for medical staff to care for seriously ill patients, including coronavirus patients.

The National Governors’ Association held a meeting Sunday and, while it asked people to avoid crowds during the New Year’s holidays, it called on the central government to consider gradually restarting its Go To Travel campaign on Jan. 12 in areas where the spread of infections has slowed. The central government announced that the discount travel program would be suspended nationwide beginning Dec. 28 through Jan. 11.

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