• Kyodo, staff report, Jiji

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The nation’s death toll linked to the novel coronavirus came to 3,026 on Tuesday, topping the 3,000-mark only a month after exceeding 2,000 amid fears that a recent spike in the number of infections could further squeeze Japan’s health care system.

The total includes passengers of the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined off Yokohama earlier this year.

On Tuesday, 48 deaths were reported nationwide, including 12 in Osaka Prefecture.

After the first death was confirmed on Feb. 13, the national COVID-19 death toll topped 1,000 on July 20 and 2,000 on Nov. 22. Japan is suffering a third wave of infections, and the number of deaths and severely ill patients has been growing. The daily death count hit a record 53 on Dec. 15, a figure matched the following day.

Of the fatal cases counted by the health ministry as of Wednesday, people aged 80 or over accounted for about 60%, those in their 70s for about 26%, those in their 60s for 9.2%, those in their 50s for 3.1%, those in their 40s for 1.1%, those in their 30s for 0.3% and those in their 20s for 0.1%. No death has been confirmed among people aged 19 or younger.

By prefecture, the death toll was the highest in Tokyo, at 568, followed by Osaka Prefecture, at 502, Hokkaido, at 401, and Kanagawa Prefecture, at 244.

On Tuesday, 2,687 new infections were confirmed nationwide, including 563 in Tokyo, 348 in Kanagawa Prefecture and 283 in Osaka Prefecture.

According to the health ministry, the number of seriously ill patients stood at a record high of 620 as of Tuesday, up by 17 from Monday.

A rise in the number of severe cases among the older population is a major cause for concern. The rate of severe cases compared with that for individuals in their 30s was 25 times higher for people in their 60s, 47 times higher for those in their 70s and 71 times higher among those in their 80s, according to the health ministry.

“The spread of the virus has led to a rise in the number of hospitalized patients and those suffering from severe cases,” said Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

“It will be difficult to manage general medical treatment alongside the pandemic,” said Wakita, who also chairs a government panel of medical experts.

Tokyo’s 563 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday exceeded the previous high in the capital for a Tuesday, of 460, which was set on Dec. 15.

Of the most recent daily total for Tokyo, 65 of the cases involved people age 65 or older while the number of severely ill patients, based on city standards, came to 64 — up one from the previous day. The daily figure was based on 4,913 tests, the metropolitan government said in a statement.

Among those newly diagnosed, people in their 20s made up the largest group, at 133, followed by 120 people in their 30s and 96 people in their 40s. The cumulative number of infections in the capital stood at 52,382.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has denied the need to declare another national state of emergency, even amid the latest surge in cases and as health experts warn that the medical system is becoming strained.

Speaking in a prerecorded TV interview on Monday night, Suga said the government may instead ask restaurants and bars to further shorten business hours in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Also Monday, the government’s coronavirus point man indicated it will consider a law revision to strengthen prefectural governors’ authority in the fight against the pandemic.

At a news conference Monday night, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura pointed to the need to allow prefectural governors to take strong measures even before a state of emergency over the epidemic is declared.

“We aim to enable compulsory measures, if necessary,” Nishimura said, adding that the government was looking to submit a bill to revise a special law enacted to counter the pandemic during an ordinary Diet session set to start in January.

The news conference was also attended by Shigeru Omi, chair of a government panel on the pandemic, who expressed a strong sense of crisis over the ongoing spread of infections in the Tokyo area.

Omi pointed out that slowing infections in the metropolitan area was key to containing the spread elsewhere in the country. He called on people again to follow infection prevention measures, such as avoiding eating and drinking in large groups.

On Monday, the cumulative number of infections nationwide was pushed above the 200,000 mark. After the country’s first case was confirmed on Jan. 16., it took seven months for the tally to top 50,000, on Aug. 10, and 80 more days to surpass 100,000, on Oct. 29. After the pace of infections started to accelerate further in November, the tally rose by 50,000 in 33 days to hit 150,000 on Dec. 1, then climbed by another 50,000 in about three weeks.

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