• Kyodo, Jiji

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Japan’s second state of emergency in response to COVID-19 could become longer and stricter, and cover more prefectures, if the outbreak does not show signs of abating, a minister and the chief of a government panel suggested Thursday, a day after the nation expanded the measure to 11 prefectures.

Shigeru Omi, the head of the government’s subcommittee on the pandemic, said that if the number of novel coronavirus cases remains flat or only decreases mildly during the designated period it would be “impossible to maintain the current state of emergency declaration, and stronger measures will be needed.”

“Requesting business closures is an option,” Omi added during a House of Councilors committee meeting. Under the state of emergency, which will last until Feb. 7, restaurants and bars have been asked to close by 8 p.m.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s coronavirus response, also said, “More prefectures could be added (to the state of emergency area) depending on the infection situation.”

The government will decide whether to expand the emergency declaration further after examining the infection situation, the availability of medical care and the capacity of public health centers in each region, Nishimura said at the meeting.

But noting that numbers of cases have remained at low levels in some regions, such as Tohoku, Nishimura said that there was no immediate plan to expand the state of emergency nationwide.

On Wednesday, Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said the government should consider a nationwide state of emergency as an “option” to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus and ease the strain on the medical system.

The country’s cumulative total of confirmed infections topped 300,000 the same day, and Nakagawa said the medical system had been increasingly overwhelmed with some hospitals forced to turn away non-COVID-19 patients.

“Depending on the situation in the near future, declaring a state of emergency for the whole country is one option. I would like (the government) to act swiftly,” Nakagawa told a news conference.

The total number of COVID-19 cases has increased by 100,000 in about three weeks, after surpassing 100,000 on Oct. 29 and reaching 200,000 nearly two months later on Dec. 21, according to a Kyodo News tally.

Japan has also confirmed the presence of novel coronavirus variants discovered in the U.K. and South Africa, with infections expected to increase at an even greater rate if they spread throughout the country.

In addition to Tokyo, which confirmed a record 2,447 new infections on Jan. 7, other prefectures that have huge urban populations, including Osaka and Aichi, have similarly been struggling amid a sudden rise in cases through the start of the year.

According to a health ministry panel of experts, the number of people in Tokyo who were unable to find hospitals or other facilities for treatment after testing positive for the novel coronavirus totaled more than 6,000 as of Saturday.

The figure had almost doubled from a week before, the panel said Wednesday. In more and more areas where infections are surging, local authorities are struggling to get COVID-19 patients into hospitals or other facilities, the panel said, adding that it is increasingly difficult to balance the treatment of such patients with those affected by other diseases or injuries.

The panel noted the spread of COVID-19 in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas late last year, mainly through corporate and other year-end parties and gatherings involving eating and drinking among young people, and expressed concerns over a possible further increase in infections among older people.

One possible factor behind the nationwide surge in infections after the turn of the year was people making trips to their hometowns and dining with relatives during the year-end and New Year’s holiday period, it said.

The effective reproduction number, or the average number of people to whom an infected person transmits the virus, was estimated at 1.14 nationwide as of Dec. 27 last year. A reading of over 1.0 indicates that the infection is spreading.

The figure stood at an estimated 1.09 each in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, 1.06 in Saitama Prefecture and 1.23 in Chiba Prefecture.

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